Over coffee, Busra Cebeci, a 28-year-old journalist with honey-colored hair, tells me about her escape from small-town conservatism to a liberated life as an urban intellectual in Turkey. A key part of her journey involved “uncovering” — taking off the headscarf that has long been a symbol of piety associated with the ruling Islamists.
Cebeci is not alone. Her moving book — co-written with Nevsin Mengu, one of Turkey’s leading journalists — features interviews with young women from Turkey and Iran who have defied community and family pressures to leap forward into new lives.
In 2019, Turkish women who threw off the headscarf — called “basortusu” in Turkish and “hijab” in Arabic — participated in the #10YearChallenge on Twitter, sharing photos of their liberated selves. In an online platform called “You Will Not Walk Alone” in Turkish, women who uncovered, or want to do so, pour their hearts out. Elif Cakir, a prominent Turkish columnist and previously a longtime supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, has also taken off her headscarf and now does daily online broadcasts critical of the government that she once saw as a vehicle for democratization.
It is hard to say how many women in Turkey have chosen this path. But, despite Erdogan’s lifelong mission to see the birth of a “pious generation,” this trend may signal the beginning of a movement in the opposite direction.
Cebeci’s journey starts in her hometown, Boyabat, where she was an avid reader in a conservative setting. In college, she developed political interests and started going to demonstrations. At 19, she showed up in class one day — uncovered. “I felt everyone, everywhere was looking at me. But no one really cared. Feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was beautiful.”
Cebeci was blessed with a loving family, but in most cases, women face immense pressure from relatives: mothers who would not speak to them for months; fathers who lock them up or take them out of school. Some endure beatings. One woman whose story is chronicled in the book ended up in a mental institution until she finally got her family to honor her wish to uncover.
Still, it would be simplistic or even wrong to equate covering with tradition and uncovering with modernity or progress.
There are two kinds of struggles in the Muslim world. Though seemingly working in opposite directions, both in reality involve the suppression of individual liberties. As we speak, Muslim women in a southern state in India are facing a headscarf ban in schools and colleges. This ban, which restricts their lives and religious freedoms, is abhorrent and antidemocratic.
But in societies such as Iran and Turkey, where conservatism has monopolized politics, there are also women who are quietly rebelling against efforts to control their lives. Taking off the headscarf may not be an overt political statement, but it is a rejection of ultraconservative boundaries that define women’s place in society in relation to family, morality and motherhood.
Both of these experiences have defined politics in Turkey. In the 1990s, Erdogan and his allies were fighting against a staunchly secularist regime that arguably discriminated against conservatives and Islamists. Turkey’s founding ideology, Kemalism, favored Westernized lifestyle over tradition. Since the Iranian Revolution, the fight between Kemalism and conservative Islam was fought over education policies and women’s bodies.
In the 1990s, Turkey’s hard-line secularists banned the headscarf from universities and schools. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, an elected parliamentary deputy who wears a headscarf, was booed out of the Turkish parliament; her party was banned shortly after.
But since his rise to power two decades ago, Erdogan has promoted conservative policies, supported Islamic sects and introduced religious elements to Turkey’s once strictly secular education system, leveling the field between a conservative population and a secular state. Ironically, for his generation of ultraconservative communities, wearing the scarf was a woman’s ticket to attend school or take part in public life. In that sense, Erdogan’s tenure has provided visibility and access to public life for women who would otherwise be forced to stay home and marry at a young age.
Yet the move to lift the headscarf ban in the 2010s has not made Turkey more democratic. Erdogan’s version of Sunni Islam — statist, nationalist, and illiberal — is the de facto state ideology today, and ideals such as free speech and minority rights have been curtailed.
Striking footage was taken a couple months ago of a police officer with a headscarf shoving an Islamist demonstrator, who was also covered. It encapsulates the divides in Turkey, which are no longer between the conservative and modern but between those who want to keep the system authoritarian and those who want change.
Cebeci’s book is titled “Let Everyone Live How They Want,” and that’s probably good advice to any government or state. As Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr this week, it is hard not to get discouraged about the fate of democracy in the Muslim world. But talking to young women in Turkey gives me hope. The new generation, at least in Turkey and Iran, knows what itwants. For each autocrat, there are millions of young men and women pushing for the rights to speak, dress and live how they want. In the end, that spirit will prevail.