Shedding the headscarf, Turkish women tell of pressures and new solidarity
ISTANBUL - Busra Cebeci was 19 when she took one of the most difficult decisions of her life. The young Turkish woman took off her Islamic headscarf, triggering a bitter row with her father, an observant Muslim, who refused to talk to her for more than a year.
Her decision shocked her family in her hometown of Boyabat in central Turkey. “My father thought I was going to roast in hell,” Cebeci, now 25, said. “My mother said she would be ashamed to be seen on the street with me.”
As a Turkish journalist, Cebeci has talked with dozens of women who have taken the same step. “The main pressure takes place inside the families,” she said. “The family is like a little state and has much bigger means of punishment than the real state. When women want to take off their headscarf, they must confront their fathers, their brothers or their husbands.”
Sometimes women pay a high price, she added. “Some women have been beaten. Others have tried to commit suicide. In one case, a woman ended up in a mental institution,” she said.
In Turkey, a Muslim nation and EU candidate country of 80 million people that has secular principles and equality of the sexes enshrined in the constitution, most women wear the veil.
However, the country is seeing a change in its citizens’ views of religion. A survey by the Konda polling firm indicated that the percentage of women covering their hair has fallen to 34%, from 37% a decade ago. Only a slim majority of Turks (51%) described themselves as pious, down from 55% in 2008.
Since rising to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an organisation with roots in political Islam, has abolished regulations that banned veiled women from working or studying in public institutions. As a result, university students, teachers, lawyers or police officers covering their hair have become commonplace.
Erdogan and his supporters say the government respects secular lifestyles and is not forcing women to wear a headscarf. “Women are free to not cover their hair or to cover their hair,” wrote Ozlem Albayrak, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper. “None of us has the right to question choices that people make for themselves.”
Still, commentators have suggested that taking off the veil could be a sign of protest against the AKP. Cebeci, however, said in many instances the women’s decision was very personal and had more to do with the wish to change their own life than with politics.
“Some want to do sports or play theatre, some just feel prettier without the headscarf, some want a certain hairstyle,” she said.
Cebeci added that the fact that women decide to wear their hair openly is nothing new in Turkey. What has changed is that women taking off the headscarf in Turkey today no longer feel alone.
“They used to withhold their names when they talked about it but today they post their pictures on the internet,” Cebeci said. The worldwide web and social media were providing a “big net of solidarity.”
After publishing articles and interviews on the issue in Turkish media, Cebeci said she received many messages from women telling her: “I thought I was alone with this, I didn’t know there were other women going through this.”
A recent worldwide Twitter initiative, #10YearChallenge, led dozens of women in Turkey to write on the micro-blogging site about their choice to uncover their hair. Many posted before-and-after pictures showing them with and without a headscarf. Cebeci joined in, commenting: “I can’t hold myself back any longer. I am in it as well.”
A website, called “Yalniz Yurumeyeceksin” (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), gives women an opportunity to talk anonymously about experiences in shedding the veil and has developed into another tool giving women a voice.
“For the first time in my 18-year-old life I have done something that makes me feel like myself,” one woman wrote on the website. “It has not been easy. I was more or less ready for the response I was going to get but it was harder than I thought and it still is.”
“Don’t be afraid of anyone, my friends,” wrote another woman, who said she had taken off the headscarf at the age of 47 after wearing it for 30 years. “I will keep living with my hair blowing in the wind and becoming wet in the rain.”
Cebeci said many women were tired of being made “mascots” in political battles between AKP supporters and the opposition.
“If you are wearing a headscarf, you fulfil a certain cliche,” she said. “You vote AKP, you don’t have sex and so on. Women no longer want to deal with prejudices like that.”
On Yalniz Yurumeyeceksin, one woman echoed that sentiment. “Just leave it to women to decide how they want to live,” she wrote.
Erdogan has not commented on the website or the Twitter campaign.