(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.”
(This article was first published on October 12, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
At 11 p.m. Saturday night, the bar is full of 20-somethings drinking, talking, flirting. One young couple steals a kiss at their table of 20 while an Amy Winehouse song booms through the air. Bartenders rush to keep up with the crowded house, sliding glasses topped with foam to their takers.
The decor is posh. From the stylish designer threads of the patrons to the sleek LCD TVs broadcasting videos of Aerosmith and Madonna, we could be in Greenwich Village. But this is Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.
When I told friends and family I would Study Abroad in Turkey, I heard the words “too dangerous” and was warned of Al Qaeda. I was often asked about running water or Internet access. Very few understood Turkey’s rank among the 20 largest economies in the world.
Turkey is a complex country — one that can’t be boxed into any particular image.
In downtown Ankara, women and men dress in tight-fitting Polo and Lacoste shirts, or trendy button-downs with their curve-hugging jeans, as they pass Levis, Starbucks or chic hair styling salons.
Mammoth malls are filled with American and European brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nine West and Sephora. In Ankara, a dry and mountainous city devoid of much natural beauty, these malls are major recreation centers. Some offer movie theaters, bowling, arcades and outdoor amusement parks. One mall offers ice-skating in the winter.
“People like to hang out in these malls, even though they may never buy anything,” said Ankara resident Caglar Yurtseven, watching dozens of Turks relax in big leather arm chairs at the mall.
Many of these behemoth shopping centers, spurred by major economic growth and the rise of a new Turkish middle class, rose up over the past 10 years since the completion of Ankara’s first Mall in 1999. Since then, 16 other malls have risen, turning city outskirts into prime real estate where projects as tall as 20 stories have been built or are under construction.
The city doesn’t slow down at night. On weekends, bars and cafes spill out on the sidewalk. Walking down the trendy Tunali Caddesi, or Tunali Avenue, Turks and foreign visitors relax in late night cafes and pastry shops, sports bars, disco bars, oldies bars and dance clubs for the young and old. The city has one gay bar, too, near Tunali.
You can’t stereotype Turkey as an Islamic country akin to neighbors Syria, Iraq or Iran. But it’s not identical to its European counterparts, either. As many cosmopolitan residents there are, others adopt a more traditional and religious approach. In Ankara, one-third of women wear hijab, or headscarves. Sometimes it’s religious, sometimes political, often traditional, and sometimes a little of all. Many Westerners don’t know that wearing a headscarf is banned by Turkish law in Turkish universities. Some Turkish women come to the United States to study in the freedom of wearing their headscarf to class.
Many Turks say they fear the growing presence of religion will undermine secular Turkey, while others describe it as a benign migration of a new middle class into the cities from more conservative villages.
Back in the bar appropriately named Random, Turkey’s political and cultural conflicts seem worlds away amid the laughter of the diverse students drinking together. Here, Turkey’s youth relish the cool breeze gently blowing through the beer garden covered in green ivy. In a country where the average age is 25, the youngest in Europe, Turkey seems poised for more growth.