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The headscarf struggle

I didn’t write much about the women’s headscarf debate as a journalist — it always seemed too complicated — but I had a go in a chapter on Middle Eastern women in Dining with al-Qaeda. Barçin Yinanç of Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey picked up the story (original here).

An outsider’s look at Turkey’s headscarf issue


Friday, October 8, 2010

The issue of the headscarf is back on Turkey’s agenda. The heated debate coincided with my reading of Hugh Pope’s recent book, “Dining with al-Qaeda.” As the subtitle, “Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East,” suggests, the former journalist explains to his readers the many and rather complex faces of the Middle East, emphasizing that the region is much more than a monolithic “Islamic World.”

One of the 18 chapters is dedicated to women in the Middle East. Some of the passages of “Subversion in the Harem: Women on the rise from Cairo to Istanbul” pertain to issues that are directly related to the current debates in Turkey.

One may recall the war of words between the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, on the different way the headscarf is worn in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Pope also compares Turkey with Iran in his book. Changes to the traditional moral and household duties of women are recent in the Middle East, following the lead of the West, says Pope. Family honor and submissiveness are still usually considered to be essential and symbolized by the appearance of women, yet women also use their appearance to make political points, according to Pope. “The Turks consciously unveiled in their 1920s secular revolution to show how they were turning toward the West. Iranian women covered up during the 1979 Islamic Revolution to turn their back on the West and its support for the shah’s dictatorship. In the 2000s these two countries swapped places, with Iranian women pushing back their head scarves to register opposition to the regime and Turkish women wrapping themselves up,” he says. “Each nation had its own struggle with modernity rushing in, and paradoxes abounded.”

He says Turkey is almost schizophrenic in its attitude toward women. The country’s republican secularists and its religious conservatives use women as their favorite political playground. But, argues Pope, this conflict is not only about the place of Islam in society, it is also a “new front in a long-running conflict about communities and social class. The religious-minded two-thirds of the population that is rooted in the villages of Anatolia tend to be pragmatic and open-minded about headscarves, whereas the more secular third is urban and often descended from refugees who built the Turkish Republic up from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after the 1920s and views headscarves as the nemesis of their ideological goal to create a modern state.

For those who know Turkey and the headscarf issue, Pope’s analysis might not be so new. But in the following passages he touches on one dimension that rarely comes up:

“The problem for me lies more in the Islamists’ other main justification for headscarves; that they are part of women’s duty to stop men lusting after them. Innocently enough, many young women therefore wear a chic headscarf that signals not that they are fundamentalists, but that they are morally upright and marriageable or are dutiful wives. But for exactly the same reason, the secularists are quite right, as in France, to insist that no headscarves be allowed in schools. A schoolgirl wearing a headscarf implies that I, as a man, might be lusting after her. I find the insinuation repugnant – if people really think there is such a general problem, they should first start educating the men.”

Let me put it in different words. The headscarf also symbolizes in conservative Turkey that the woman wearing it is not an easy woman; implying in reverse that those who are not wearing it have the potential of being easy.

One of the drivers of the daily I was working at 10 years ago once told me how his daughter, living in Southeast Turkey, decided to cover her head, as her husband, a soldier in the Turkish army, used to go away for long periods of time. That way, she thought, she would not be harassed by men.

That’s the point when I, as a woman not wearing a headscarf, perceive this attitude as insulting. Just because I am not wearing a headscarf does not make me “less Muslim” or less “dignified.”

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