Fri, Jul 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

How lots of outsiders are confused by the veil and the headscarf

By Elif Shafak

On July 23 millions of Turks will wake up into a new, post-elections Turkey. What will happen is hard to foresee.

Turkish politics is full of surprises that only foreigners find surprising.

Today, and this seems to surprise most people outside Turkey, it is women, not men, who are at the heart of political debate. Indeed, in these elections the number of women candidates from all parties has visibly increased and so has female political activism overall.

This election is taking place because when the AKP party, the conservative party now in power, designated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate for president, the country's secular elite cringed. Gul was not the issue; the issue was his wife. Had Gul been chosen as president, Turkey would have had its first headscarf wearing first lady.

Gul's wife's headscarf was interpreted as the symbol of darker changes to come. If the first lady wears a headscarf, maintained the secular-minded elite, the whole secular system could be undermined.

What followed was unprecedented political turbulence, including mass demonstrations on a scale never seen before. There was feverish talk of a possible military takeover, and the army again proved itself to be a seminal political actor.

Through all this, Turkish women were at the forefront. In particular, Turkey's Westernized, modernized, secular women seemed determined to show their opposition to the existence of "the other" Turkish woman.

Gender issues have always been vital in the Turkish nation-state. Kemalism, or the beliefs associated with the founder of modern Turkey, Musfafa Kemal Atuturk, is unique among all Muslim reform movements in that it transformed not only the public sphere, but also the private sphere -- the domain of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. In the 1920s and 1930s -- the years of Atuturk's rule -- the "new Turkish women" became the icon of the modern, secular regime.

The difference between what the French call laicite and secularism is more than a linguistic nuance for Turkey, which adopted its Kemalist system not long after France entrenched its secular republic. Religious symbols and references have to a large extent been removed from the public sphere here, and religion is thought to be a private matter. Many Turks who go to the US for the first time are puzzled, indeed, by its religiosity. It comes as a surprise to see religious symbols and statements at the entrance of public buildings, on money, inside the courtroom.

But in Turkey the headscarf is not seen as a trivial symbol. Eighty years after the republic's founding the trouble with headscarved women is that they do not fit into the picture of the ideal modern Turkish woman.

At the first glance there seems to be a huge mental, cultural and political gap dividing Turkey's women. Yet if we look closer this gap becomes illusory. In everyday life the two types of Turkish women are more mixed than they are usually assumed to be. It is not uncommon for one sister to wear a headscarf while another does not, or a mother to wear a headscarf while her daughters do not.

Sometimes among two best friends, one is covered and one is not. Any stroll along a crowded Istanbul street will show covered and uncovered women effortlessly -- almost naturally -- mixing. Why then can't a similar sisterhood be achieved in the realm of politics?

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