An aside from celebrations

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently begun letting my students add me as a Facebook friend.  Despite my initial inclination to keep that part of my life private, I’ve been swayed by a more casual Turkish teacher-student relationship.  There’s no harm in letting them see I’m a real person within a limited profile (can’t let them see drugs/hookers/last week’s orgy) but they can view some pictures.

One of my ogrenciler recently commented on an old Facebook profile picture: “Your hair is very beautiful.”  After I got over my shock at the correct subject-verb-adjective agreement (something is sinking in!!) and the fact that my hair can look better than scraggly mop, I realized I have no idea what this young woman’s hair looks like.  She wears a headscarf–or, in Turkish terms, is covered.

A secular state by constitution, Turkey’s population is 95% Muslim (practicing or otherwise).  Ataturk, whose image is revered by the followers of an image-less religion, banned numerous traditional and religious garments (including the fez and other non-Western clothing holding his people back from modernity) in a frenzy to sweep away the trappings of superstition and the Ottoman Empire.  Yet the headscarf was never entirely banned.

While dress standards relaxed from the 20’s to the present day, women wearing headscarves were consistently prohibited from university campuses, public schools, and government offices.  So if a covered Muslim woman pursued higher education, she was required to literally leave her scarf at the door.  Depending on your view, this act either liberated her from her assuredly ‘backwards’ family, forced her to remove and deny a piece of her identity, humiliated her, or some combination thereof.  Student movements  demanding acceptance for headscarves on campuses met with varying degrees of temporary success from the 60’s onward.  Prime Minister Erdogan of the Islamist-leaning, definitely not secular AK Party attempted a headscarf-ban ban in 2007, only to be overruled by Turkey’s highest Constitutional Court.  The ban remained.

When the fall semester began at NKU, I only saw a handful of women removing their scarves before passing through the university gates.  However, by mid-October these women walked right through the turnstiles, scarves in place.  My fiercely secular colleagues were incensed; they saw this action as the students asserting the growing power of Political Islam, that hot potato of a phrase that gets lobbed around whenever anyone wants to scare the West.  Normally scarved students were kicked out of class, but a YOK notice supposedly urged professors to live and let live.  So my colleagues were without recourse.

I am an advocate for the “wear what expresses your identity” camp, but that position ignores the gnawing religious-secular conflict at the heart of modern Turkish identity.  Take, for instance, the recent kerfuffle over President Abdullah Gul’s Republic Day dinner.  It’s easy for me to waltz in as an American and approve of my students’ rebellious actions, but I’ve taken the “listen 80%, talk 20%” tactic of intercultural understanding, and to blindly advocate for my view would be pretty silly.

The actions of the NKU students were part of a greater national movement which attracted plenty of attention in the press.  Everyone dissected their actions, their goals, their audacity, their pride.  But this article is probably my favorite.  Not only does it recognize that more and more Turkish women, regardless of religious observance, are pursuing higher education with hopes of employment,  but it goes one step further than most Turkish commentary by actually examining the hiring and workplace discrimination that covered women face after university.  This problem goes far beyond Turkey’s Ivory Towers.

During this past summer’s niqab crisis in France, I was incensed that a government would attempt to legislate women’s freedom with some pretty flimsy excuses.  Whatever decision YOK and the Constitutional Court eventually reach, it’s beyond frustrating (but, I guess, expected) that women’s bodies continue to serve as the visible battleground for society’s greater conflicts.


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