The Scarf: Oppression or Freedom?


When I walk the streets of Istanbul, there are always women in scarves. In more traditional communities it’s a majority, while in more modern, upscale communities, it’s less common. Older women are generally scarved, and younger women less often.


A lovely Muslim “Princess”

On rare occasions I’ll see two women, arm in arm, one scarved and one with tresses flowing free. It makes no difference to their friendship, though I find it a startling contrast.


Ceramic artists in Iznik, Turkey

I’ve tried to accept this part of Islamic culture, and I’ve come close, though I still struggle with the unfairness of women being covered when men aren’t.

A book entitled Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks, enlightened me somewhat on the topic. Apparently the theory (Islamic) is that women are incredibly sensuous beings; Allah granted them 9 parts of desire, giving men only one. Therefore, women have to cover themselves in order to keep the world from descending into chaos (of a sensual nature).

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, it has been unlawful for women to wear scarves in public buildings, including schools. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s revered founder, was adamant that Turkey be a secular state even though its predominant religion was Islam. That is still true in this country, which is 99% Muslim. Turks take great pride in their secular government, a model of democracy in an Islamic world.


Sweethearts in Antalya, Turkey

Before I moved to Turkey I read Orhan Pamuk’s book, Snow, a fictional response to the issue of scarves and education. In this novel, a journalist travels to Kars (“snow” in Turkish), a city in Eastern Turkey, to investigate the story of girls whose religious convictions to wear scarves has driven them to suicide because of being denied access to education. Pamuk’s approach is a critical one, though illuminating in its understanding of the issues faced by these young women. It opened my eyes to the passion many of these girls feel about covering their heads.


Scarved women of all ages in Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

Well, the deed is done, as you probably know. Amid great turmoil, Turkey has passed legislation allowing women to wear scarves in universities, as long as their faces aren’t covered. There are two sides to this issue, and both make sense.

Proponents of the ruling insist that it’s a move toward freedom for all and access to education for women, not a step towards an Islamic state. That works for me. In America many girls attend school scarved. (Of course, America isn’t a neighbor to a country that requires head-covering.)

Opponents feel that this is just one of many moves toward breaking down Turkey’s secular government, that it’s like a “test case” to amending the constitution away from secularism. They also view the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam. So who’s right?


A young kilim-weaver in Cappadocia

I discussed this issue with a few university women, and they find it upsetting. They see both sides, yet feel threatened by the acceptance of scarves in their educational environment. “I worry that the pressure will be on me to take the scarf, or maybe on my daughter. We have a name for that social pressure in Turkey; it’s a lot like peer pressure, and it’s strong in our culture. I don’t want my country to go that way, but what can I do to prevent it?” one of them said.

A teacher friend shared that she’s unhappy with the ruling as well, although only a few of her university students appeared in scarves this week. She’s a liberal-minded woman, like many educators, and she feels the classroom isn’t the place for religious posturing. She commented, “This issue takes attention away from our country’s real problems: a shaky economy, lack of education, and ‘ugly’ world policies.” She’s not alone in this view. Many people have expressed a concern that much broader issues plague Turkey, and this issue has just been a governmental smokescreen to avoid tackling them.


Worshippers in the traditional community of Eyüp

Though many people feel that the wearing of scarves is on the rise, a survey of women across Turkey in 2006 showed a decline in scarf wearing. In 1999, 73% of Turkish women wore a headscarf, while in 2006 the percentage had declined to 63%.* It is true, though, that many families choose to keep their daughters out of school once they reach puberty. Turkey has sponsored many programs to promote the continued education of girls, with limited success.

I’m sure the CHP (secularist party) will bring this decision to an appeals court on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional, and no one knows where that will go. The Turkish military, which is charged with the responsibility of upholding the constitution and the secular state, doesn’t look kindly on this action either. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will intervene. It looks for now like things are settling.


Two generations of scarf fashion in Cappadocia

In the Best of All Possible Worlds, this would be a positive step. The problem, though, is mistrust and unspoken agendas. Time will tell, I guess. Until then, women will be free to wear scarves in Turkey’s universities.

*The survey was conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV)

Snow-blown Istanbul

After a 24-month hiatus, Winter has rediscovered Istanbul—and it’s great fun! We’ve been teased with snow flurries all week, whetting everyone’s appetites for the inevitable cancellation of classes. In recent years school has been called off at any hint of snow (due, I am told, to a child’s death on his way home from school during a snowstorm).

The first year I was in Istanbul, we had a snow day for mere flurries (by Minnesota standards). Then when we had an actual blizzard in January, we got a full week off. Of course, you must remember that this is a city without snowplows—and with precious few snowshovels. People use spades, brooms, squeegies, and dustpans to remove the snow. Believe me, it’s a backbreaker to clear your driveway with a dustpan! I think we had eight snow days that year, then last winter we hardly saw a snowflake. But Winter has returned.


City snow removal, winter 2006

Yesterday (Saturday) it snowed off and on all day, but since it warmed up mid-day, much of the snow melted away. I went into the city to meet a few former Koç students for a late lunch (such a joy!), then hooked up with friends for dinner. Amazingly, in spite of the storm, I got back to campus in just over an hour, climbing the hill through a mere inch of snow.


Saturday hiking down to Arnavutköy from Robert College

This morning, however, I woke to an amazing winter wonderland: three to four inches of heavy snow, blown by blasts of wind from the Bosphorus. There’s always wind in Istanbul, but particularly after a snowstorm, I guess. As a Northern Minnesotan I’m more than accustomed to snow (we have it five months each year), but here it’s a real novelty, even to me! Robert College has a snowplow (after all, it IS an American school), and the maintenance crew ran it up and down the winding, cobbled roadways all morning long, trying to keep pace with the snowfall.


Libby waiting patiently for our morning walk

As my dog Libby and I trekked through the storm this morning, she was thrilled with the return to “normalcy” in her life, cavorting with the snow like a long-lost friend. We checked out new routes around campus, and I realized how incredibly steep some of the campus roads are. There’s one section that’s so steep the guards set up barriers and plowed around it, across drives behind the buildings. I picked my way down that steep section, which was a little like descending a snow-covered mountain peak. I’ll be amazed if we have school tomorrow.


Deciduous shrubs and trees struggle with the heavy snow.

The guards were jerryrigging chains to their “guardmobile” tires as we walked by the main guard station, and NO one was driving the school roads—except for the taxi we called to bring us to a grocery store. Our service bus to IKEA and REAL was cancelled this morning (weather, of course), so one of the bilingual teachers called for a taxi—WITH snow tires. No thwarting a Robert teacher’s plans!


—a splash of color in a white world

Well, my first week at Robert College is behind me, and my groceries are all put away. Though I’m not sure I need a day off quite so soon, I’m open to the idea, as any self-respecting teacher or student would be. I have papers to correct, planning to do, and maps to finish for my latest book project. I guess I could use the extra time. Who couldn’t?

Welcome back to Istanbul, Winter.

A snow-swept patio overlooking the frigid Bosphorus

F.Y.I.—School was cancelled. HOORAY!!!!

Back for another teaching stint

Well, we’re back in Istanbul! Though I was a nervous wreck about sentencing Libby to 16 hours in cargo (KLM said she was too big for the cabin—what????), we both managed, arriving mid-day Thursday after a 24-hour trek from Grand Marais. We’re settled into our little apartment-with-a-view at Robert College, a highly prestigious and incredibly picturesqe preparatory high school located high above the Bosphorus.

I was warmly greeted by Maria Orhon, Robert College English teacher and Academic Director. Imagine my dismay when I realized that she had a small Toyota (with a driver) to transport the two of us (three with the driver), Libby and her kennel, and five suitcases and crates. Oops! We had to hire a taxi to get everything to the school, though Maria was more than gracious about it. After giving me some time to squeeze everything into my apartment, she chauffered me to a nearby Migros grocery store, then later treated me to a meal of mouth-watering fish cakes and grilled turbot steaks. YUM! And— Eftalia, the lovely Bosphorus fish restaurant, is within walking distance of school! Since I hadn’t had any exercise for two days, I bid Maria farewell at the school gate and hiked back up the hill to my lojman (apartment). I slept like a log, 11 hours straight.

Libby checking out our new digs
Libby checking out our new digs

The word for the day at Robert College is STEPS! Yesterday I walked back down to the Bosphorus, which is 10 minutes (and 167 steps) down the hill. The walk is lovely, with winding sidewalks and stairways lined in lush greenery: lawns, trees, and shrubs, punctuated by the occasional spray of spring blossoms. (Yes, it’s nearly spring here.)


A bit of the 167-step trek up the hill to Robert College

The Bosphorus is amazing, too. The waterway that divides Europe from Asia (I’m on the European side), it has been the source of many a war because it connects the Agean Sea (to the west of Turkey) and the Mediterranean (South) to the Black Sea, providing access to Georgia, Russia, and many of the Baltic states. It’s also beautiful.


A view of Asia across the Bosphorus from our European campus

Libby and I strolled the waterfront for an hour, watching fishermen catch hamsi (anchovies), meeting stray dogs (all friendly), and just generally scoping out the scene. Private boats of all shapes and sizes line the quay, and I noticed that many are floating restaurants. Have to check those out later.


Boats lining the Bosphorus quay

I spent the afternoon working in the English office, preparing for my first week: poetry for the non-fiction classes and Bless Me, Ultima for the fiction class. I’m eager to get back into the classroom, and this new semester offers a new beginning to all of us. I’m replacing a teacher who left (reluctantly) because Turkish law forces teachers to retire when they turn 65. She left things totally organized for me, with little notes everywhere. What a welcome! I feel truly embraced by the people here already. Of course, this is Turkey. They’re like that here.


My five-month office corner

After a dicey sleep the second night, I putzed around my apartment, filling the walls with calendar photos (thanks to Aly) and reorganizing the furniture. Then Libby and I trekked up to the upper campus entrance—another 322 steps. Oh, my goodness! I’m going to get my exercise here, believe me. I was of the mistaken impression that the college was perched on top of the hill above the Bosphorus, but I guess it’s less than halfway up. A few very cranky dogs met us just outside the upper gate, but I picked Libby up and we ignored their snarls—well, sort of.

We explored the streets above the school, and I found another little grocery store. I picked up garlic, crackers, and pepper, carrying Libby through the store. I’m hesitant to tie her outside, as one nasty dog could do her in. I don’t think I’ll take her beyond the upper gates anymore. Not a great place for a little dog. (Though apparently it’s still a good place for horses!)


A rare, yet intriguing sight in Istanbul—Speedy Delivery?

So here I am, champing at the bit to teach my four sections of 9th graders at Robert College. It feels good to be back in Istanbul, though issues abound here. (The latest is the parliament’s decision to allow women to wear scarves in the universities, which is upsetting to secularists, who see it as a step toward an Islamic state. More about that later.)

The call to prayer warms my heart, and Libby is now sitting at the window watching for Campus Cats, of which there are many. Each new citing intoxicates her; she’ll be happy here. Not many cats around the woods in Grand Marais. Just boring old deer.

Boreal Access Web Mailer