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)

3 thoughts on “The Scarf: Oppression or Freedom?

  1. I am a muslim woman in America, and after reading the article, what perplexes me is that one people forget that it is a personal choice to wear the hijab/head scarf. God gives us freedom of choice to obey or disobey him. The reason for covering the hair is a matter of modesty and if you look at all the major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), all the scriptures talk about a woman covering her head. Why another woman would fell threatened by another woman covering her head bewilders me in a very deep way. As far as men in Islam, they are required to dress modestly as well, and wearing the kufi is a type of hijab for men. Here in the US, people seem to think that muslim women who wear the hijab are oppressed, but in the most interesting paradox the same women who don’t cover their hair, dress in a sexy way, are oppressed by men who see them as nothing more than sex objects, and as we have younger and younger girls believing that they are free to be sexy, they are becoming slaves to eating disorders, self esteem issues, and victims of sexual abuse, it leads me to ask are women really free just because we can go to work with a man, act like a man, and dress however we want? No me being a reasonable person, I can say that wearing the hijab is not the only way to be modest, but I don’t see why legislation should enter in to the equation of a woman being able to go to school, work, or a government establishment with a head scarf on. It is a matter of choice. Nothing more nothing less. The Quran says there is no compulsion in religion, and I believe this is key in the matter of the hijab. No government make a woman wear the hijab, because then she wouldn’t be from her heart and she would be doing it for all the wrong reasons, the same applys to telling a woman she can’t wear it if she really wants to, becasue the state would be making her betray her moral concious. I live in what’s supposed to be the freeest democracy in the world (emphasis on supposed to be), and I was a christian before I reverted to islam, I wear the hijab, purely for moral conviction, I am not forced to wear it, and I by no means feel oppressed. I am educated, and strong. Most women that I meet, wear the hijab because they want to not because of force, and I see some muslim sister who don’t wear it because either they don’t deem it neccessary or they just don’t want to and that’s exactly how it should be.

  2. Thank you Candice for your words. You hit the nail on the head. I think that this article could have been so much better had the author realized that it is not “unfair” for a woman to cover up and a man to not have, what she feels, to be a necessary equivalent. She is leaving out the will of Allah (swt) in this. I have never wanted to wear hijab to appear more modest before man. It is my belief that modesty, in its most important form, is internal and cannot be determined by a scarf on the head or a thobe on the body. Those things do not make a modest individual. While, to the ignorant viewer, I may look oppressed or my situation “unfair” I am far from it. I have more benefits and opportunities than most people are able to have and yet I still wear hijab. Is that unfair? My hijab is for God and for no one else. Modesty is such that the entire world could be naked around you and you wouldn’t notice. Modesty is such that everybody else could be behaving in a less than reputable way but that won’t stain your integrity or actions. Also, while I appreciate your attempt to understand further, you cannot be an authority until you have lived it. I have worn hijab and I am not limited. I have been on interviews and received the interview in hijab. I have shopped, gone to school, hung out with friends, a million things and in no way does hijab limit me. Instead it further reminds me of my relationship with Allah (swt) and acts as a guide on what is and what is not appropriate behavior. I hope I’m not coming off too strongly, or rude. Your article, unlike many others, was intelligent and tried valiantly to see both sides of the issue and I greatly appreciate it. However, the depth of the article would have been greatly aided had you chosen to see the hijab in a three dimensional, rather than black and white idea.

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