In Turkey, Students Test a New Policy on Head Scarves

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

ISTANBUL, Feb. 25 -- One of the agents of Turkey's cultural transformation stood, 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds, at the gate of Istanbul Bilgi University on Monday, a flying wedge of social change in a fuzzy purple winter coat, brown hiking boots and a black wool scarf wrapped around her head.

Sabiha Gimen, a 21-year-old student of international trade, had risen at 5 a.m. A woman with an angular face and eyebrows quick to shoot upward in exclamation, Gimen had been determined to wear a head scarf to campus Monday but uncertain just how she should tie it. She searched for a way to accommodate both Turkey's newly eased restrictions on women's head coverings and her own lasting outrage at the government telling her what she could wear on her head.

"We've been fighting this issue for years," said Gimen, who defines herself as a strongly religious Muslim and a feminist.

Monday was the first day of classes since Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, a member of the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, signed into law Friday a constitutional amendment lifting a ban on wearing head scarves at public universities. In a bow to the secular principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Gul's administration stipulated that women could wear onto campus only scarves that were tied in a bow under the chin.

Turks regard that style as traditional, in contrast to Islamic styles that cover a woman's hair and neck completely, as some Muslims believe their religion prescribes.

Neither Gimen nor anyone else was sure whether universities would yet allow any head scarves. Ataturk's political party, the strongly secular Republican People's Party, had pledged court challenges to keep women who cover their heads out of public buildings. Politicians and higher education officials had debated over the weekend whether the amendment should be honored.

"These women are being used by the fundamentalist movement," Nur Serter, a Republican People's Party member of parliament and a professor at Istanbul University, said in an interview. "I believe the majority of Turkey is still secular, and determined not to yield any ground."

Standing in her home, Gimen had considered tying the scarf "granny style," she said later Monday -- knotting the ends under her chin in a bow. That way was most likely to get her past guards at her university. But it also smacked of what she saw as decades of compromise by Muslims in Turkey.

Gimen, who considers the current government too weak on Islam, settled for letting the ends trail around her neck. She spent the last minutes before class calling friends who would join her on the front line of Turkey's head scarf battles.

"Hat or head scarf?" the young women asked each other. They made guesses about which universities would allow scarves.

Standing across from her university Monday, preparing to test the question, Gimen shook off a question about what Ataturk -- still deeply revered by most Turks -- would say if he were standing at the gate.

"He wouldn't say anything," Gimen blurted, then entreated, "Please don't ask me that question."

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