(This article was first published on February 9, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
KAYSERI, TURKEY— With one foot inching toward Europe and the other firmly rooted in Islam, Turkish women wear societal friction not on their sleeves, but on their heads.
Headscarves, worn by more than half the female population, are a red flag in Turkish society — specifically, Turkey’s classrooms. The issue is as complex as the country itself: One part Europe, the other Asia. Proudly democratic, but staunchly religious and not to be confused with fundamentalist. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated while agrarian and conservative. For many Americans, it’s an issue not always understood.
For many years, headscarves were barred from classrooms and seen as promoting religion. But two years ago today, a law was passed allowing headscarves back in Turkish classrooms. The legislation seemed to enjoy popular support and passed by a wide margin, until crowds surged in deafening protest.
A few months later, Turkish courts quickly reinstated the ban.
Turkey is a “modern country,” said student Selma Soysal. “I have the freedom not to wear it. I feel like I perform all the responsibilities of my religion, and the headscarf is not the most important.”
For others, the scarf offers a different freedom.
“I feel protected against men, against their sights,” student Cansu Yilmaz said, her voice soft beneath her neon pink headscarf. “Islam says the hair is the most attractive part for men. … Even when you show a little hair, the men feel attracted.”
Turkey’s constitution has been staunchly secular since 1923, when the nation’s first president — Kemal Ataturk — began modernizing the nation. Marriages are legalized in a secular ceremony performed by a municipal official, and then celebrated at a religious function.
Many Turks believe that the headscarf is a dangerous symbol, and that attempts by Erdogan’s party — Justice and Development — to overturn the ban is an affront to Turkish secularism.
“The headscarf is a political symbol,” said opposition party member Canan Aritman during the 2008 demonstrations. “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the Dark Ages.”
Others note that the ban hurts some women more than others. Religious women are forced to choose between religion and education when not allowed to wear a headscarf in class.
The 2007-2008 UNDP Human Development Report shows Turkey behind every Middle Eastern and North African country except Yemen, regarding the ratio of women to men enrolled in higher education.
“A friend of mine stopped coming to school because of the ban,” Yilmaz said. If a woman cannot wear her headscarf to class, she might not attend class.
In Turkey, nearly half of the women surveyed in a 2007 Gallup poll said they cover their hair in public — the majority of whom are 45 and older. Only 29 percent of women ages 15 to 29 say they cover their hair in one way or another.
Student Sevil Burcak said wearing a headscarf was too demanding a religious and cultural responsibility for her.
“You represent your religion,” Burcak said, “So you must always act in a good manner. You have to avoid all temptations.”
But she doesn’t feel forced to wear a scarf, Burcak said. Coercion or peer pressure might occur more in the rural, poorer, eastern areas of Turkey, she and a group of fellow students said.
“My mother doesn’t cover her hair,” affirmed Burcak. “We are not receiving pressure from anybody.”
But some do. Critics of the scarf say it is a public step that validates oppressing and subjugating women.
“Women are seen as second-class citizens by many in communities and families,” said Hacettepe University women’s studies professor Sevkat Ozvaris. Men and women learn it as children, she said.
Women’s rights are important in Turkey. Turkey’s General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM), a government entity created to study problems of inequality between genders, reported in 2008 that 18 percent of women polled were victims of non-familial violence last year.
The numbers jump to 41.6 percent when you look at familial or domestic abuse, usually inflicted by the partner. The numbers rose above 50 percent in Turkey’s eastern regions where more undereducated and poorer women live.
Expressing his democratic freedom and religious preference, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sent his daughters to study at Indiana State University, where they wore their headscarves freely.
“Instead of sending his daughters to America, he should abolish the law,” the unveiled Soysal said.
Yilmaz doesn’t remove her tight-fitting scarf in school buildings. Instead, she wears a lopsided wig over her scarf to attend class and fulfill religious obligations. The Koran says women should dress modestly, Yilmaz said, and she said she believes the scarf is necessary to meet that rule.
“The salesman showed me how I can make the wig pretty,” said Yilmaz, “But I don’t want to style it, I want people to know it’s a wig.”
UPDATE (8/31/09): This story was published in one of the two English language newspapers in Turkey, “Today’s Zaman.” View it here.
Navigating crowded streets filled with the morning traffic of downtown Ankara, I find the plain eight-story graystone that I report to every weekday morning. Nestled away on the fourth floor is a cultural wonderland. In this room, 16 people, who belong to nine nationalities and collectively speak at least eight different languages, come together each day. No, I don’t work at an international agency; this is just my Level 1 Turkish class.
Three weeks ago, I came to Ankara to continue my Turkish language studies at Ankara University’s TOMER program. Certainly, I expected to pick up much more Turkish in the class, but I didn’t expect to see so much diversity.
Nearly everyone is in their mid twenties except Nye, a retired British expat who has spent many of his years (he won’t reveal how long) living and working in Turkey. When asked by our instructor on the first day how he managed so long without learning any Turkish, he replied, “I’m a good Englishman.” The youngest members of our class are a pair of mischievous 15-year-old twins from Kazakhstan who almost always seem to be in sync with each other from answering questions in unison to leaning against the wall and falling asleep together in just the same manner.
There is one other group of siblings in the class, three Americans from Seattle. From ages 15 to 19, they’ve spent almost all of their summers in Turkey with their American mother and Turkish father. I originally met them while lost amidst the crammed registration room during the first day. They had originally been placed by their father in a much higher level, but eventually ended up in the basic class with us several days later.
Two other students came to the class because of husband related needs. One of them, an energetic Bosnian woman in her late twenties, moved to Turkey for her husband’s new job as a television translator. The other woman, a soft-spoken Afghani, is actually trying to learn English in Turkey while she waits for a visa to the US in order to rejoin her Turkish husband. However, English is only taught in Turkish, so she’s taking our class first.
Several of my classmates have taken a giant leap with few safety nets in coming to Turkey. As an American living for the next year on a government sponsored Fulbright grant, I know that I have a lot of resources available. But, that’s not the case for everybody. I think particularly of one young woman in her mid twenties from Iran. During class breaks, she tells us about her longing to return to Iran, and why, for personal reasons, she can’t go back at the moment. Even though I lived in Boston, a city with an outstandingly mixed population, I’ve met few Iranians. I’ve met even less that have lived there within the last five years, so it was refreshing to hear from a recent expat.
Filling out the rest of the class are four foreign students from Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Hong Kong. The three Middle Eastern students are studying various subjects at Turkish universities. Although their instructors speak English, they felt it was time to try and learn some Turkish. Meanwhile, Ivory, from Hong Kong, is visiting for the summer as a part of her Turkish studies program in Taiwan.
Looking out at the class, it’s quite amazing to see how Turkey has brought us together from all over the world. Together, we stumble through our Turkish vowel harmony as we try to get our tongues around phrases like “Ben burada oturuyorum.” Amidst the incredibly welcoming but still foreign world outside, a world we hope to become better acquainted with by improving our Turkish. By practicing in our friendly group, we’ve stepped out of our shells, dared to speak more Turkish, and strengthened our resolve.
“With almost all of us knowing some English,” said Nye, “I think we’ve really been able to become quite a joined up group.”
Meanwhile, our instructor and her seemingly limitless amount of patience for us has been a saving grace. She continues to smile and encourage us, even while we struggle and sometimes wreak havoc with the intricacies of her native language. While constantly keeping a positive attitude, and often indulges us, by straying from the lesson at hand, and leading a conversation, in Turkish, about movies, music, or our curiosities about each other’s countries instead.
Some of my classmates can’t help but be drawn in by the class.
“I never planned on studying in Turkey, it wasn’t even on my list,” said Ivory from Hong Kong, “It was like fate.”
Whether you believe in fate or not, you can’t deny there is something special about a group of people coming from all across the world…to learn Turkish.