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."

Ataturk, a Turkish military officer, came to power at a time when the failure of the old ways of the Ottoman Empire left him looking to the West for examples of modernity and efficiency. He made secularism a bedrock principle of the new Turkey.

His government mandated that Turkish men give up their Ottoman fezzes and Muslim turbans for Western hats, hanging some opponents of the requirement to make the point. Ataturk urged Turkish women not to cover their hair and Turks in general to look to others besides Islamic "sheiks, dervishes [and] disciples" for leadership.

Eight decades later, Turkey is in the sixth year of government by Gul's Justice and Development Party. Many economists say the party has brought unprecedented economic prosperity to the country.

The party affirms its commitment to Ataturk's secular tenets. But opponents who fear Turkey is on the way to becoming rigidly religious point to what they say are worrying signs.

The government has appointed strongly religious Muslims to some high positions. It has announced plans to begin censoring scenes from TV shows in which characters drink alcohol. But above all was the partial rollback by Gul's party of the ban on women wearing head scarves in public buildings.

Turkey's military, the top guardian of Ataturk's secular principles, sought last year to prevent Gul from becoming president, in part because his wife wears a head scarf. But voters endorsed Gul's party in the early election that followed, dealing a setback to the military.

"The day 30 or 40 students come into class in head scarves is the day I go out," Hasan Koni, a professor of international law at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, declared Sunday over coffee at a sunny sidewalk cafe. Koni cited the example of Iran: "I cannot accept this."

On the steps of Istanbul University, Huseyin Hatemi, a retired professor of civil law, stood among a gaggle of news cameras and microphones Monday and argued for tolerance.

"These things should be left to the woman to choose," Hatemi said. "Iran is wrong in forcing them to wear the head scarf, and Turkey is wrong in forcing them not to."

Some analysts argue that the conflict here is demographic rather than religious. Millions of Turks have moved from the traditionally more religious countryside to the more liberal cities in recent decades, as Gimen's mother did at age 14.

As the newcomers swell the ranks of Turkey's middle class, they are challenging the urban secular elite.

In an apartment overlooking the shipping channels of the Bosporus, Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, contemplated the question of what Ataturk would have thought about the head scarves, and sighed. "That's an area where I'm confident to say he would not be delighted," Turan said.

But Ataturk "was quite a pragmatic and flexible man," Turan added. Turks today have some good reasons not to follow Western ways as fully as Ataturk did, but "I think the basic principles will endure," Turan said.

Ataturk's early companions gave one example of his pragmatism and flexibility. As a young officer of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk would wear the rimless cap of the Ottoman military but travel with a Western-style fedora in his bag, ready at any opportunity.

At Istanbul Bilgi University on Monday, Gimen stood at the gate. She wore the scarf around her head but stuffed a floppy knit purple cap in her book bag. She squared her shoulders and plowed toward the university gate.

"We have no orders to allow the head scarf," one guard told her.

"Other universities are allowing it," she told them.

"Go to the other universities then!" another guard yelled, driving her off.

Gimen pulled on the purple cap to hide the scarf and thus satisfy the secular rules.

"Here I am, cleansed of my identity," Gimen joked, wincing.

Eventually, "we will win," she said, before disappearing through the university gates. "My friends and I joke, we say the day that happens we will pull off our scarves and dance, hand in hand."

Throughout the morning, other women with covered heads tested the gates of college campuses in Turkey. Some universities admitted the women. Others did not.

Midmorning at Gimen's school, she spotted student friends of hers across the grounds. They were wearing head scarves and weeping, overcome by surprise and happiness at being allowed in, she said. Dry-eyed, Gimen pulled off her cap.

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