WORLD

The high cost of covering up

Turkish girls are forgoing university because of the head-scarf ban

ADNAN R. KHAN October 22 2007
WORLD

The high cost of covering up

Turkish girls are forgoing university because of the head-scarf ban

ADNAN R. KHAN October 22 2007

The high cost of covering up

WORLD

Turkish girls are forgoing university because of the head-scarf ban

ADNAN R. KHAN

Like all children, Aysal Ayar once had childhood dreams. “I wanted to be a police officer,” says the shy 19-year-old high school graduate, smiling coyly as if admitting to a dark secret. “Now I want to be a journalist. I want to write my story and the stories of other girls like me.” Ayar’s story is nothing special in Turkey: one of many girls sitting on the sidelines, watching her friends leave home for universities across the country. Unlike some of her friends, though, Ayar wears an Islamic head scarf, a choice she says she made when she was 13 years old. It has changed her life.

Under Turkey’s strict secular laws, head scarves are banned at all universities. And women who wear the scarf are forcibly removed from campuses—and occasionally arrested. The issue has recently resurfaced in Turkey following the appointment of Abdullah Gul as the country’s president, a powerful position in Turkish politics, and considered the seat of the nation’s secularist ideal. But Gul’s Islamist past has turned some secular-minded heads in recent weeks, after he spoke out against the head-scarfban. Some see it as the first sign that Turkey’s leadership is priming the country for a return to its Islamist roots. For the first time in Turkish history, an Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), controls both the parliament and the presidency. And also for the first time, both the prime minister’s wife and the president’s wife wear head scarves.

But for thousands of young women like Ayar, this latest development in Turkey’s turbulent political history is a reason for

SOME YOUNG TURKISH WOMEN GO ABROAD TO STUDY RATHER THAN GIVE UP THEIR HEAD SCARVES

hope. For years, the head-scarf ban has posed an insurmountable obstacle to observant girls dreaming of pursuing a professional career. There are no reliable figures on the number who’ve been affected, but observers agree it runs into the thousands. “These girls are victims of forced secularization,” says Kenan Alpay, a member of the managing committee at Ozgur Der, an organization in Istanbul set up to help head-scarf girls secure more rights. “It’s not an issue of modernity, as the secularists like to paint it—the women here embrace modernity—but a question of what modernity should look like.” For Alpay, the face of the modern Muslim woman is framed in a head scarf; it is, in a telling moment of irony, a form of freedom, he says, allowing women to participate in economic and social life while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of modesty imposed on them by their faith. “We think women have every right to participate in the modern world, and the head scarf is a symbol of that participation.”

The majority of Turks seem to agree. In a September survey carried out by A & G Arastirma, a leading Turkish research firm, 73 per cent of Turks said they believe the headscarf ban should be lifted. Only a very small, albeit vocal minority, see head scarves as a threat to Turkey’s official secularism. These, say most opponents of the ban, are the hardcore Kemalists, ideologues whose literalist reading of the six principles of the Turkish state formulated in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, has inspired four military coups and fractured society along a religious-secular axis.

While the six principles have benefited Turkey in the past—women, for example, were given the right to vote in 1934, less than two decades after Canadian and American women received the same right—their immutability has irked many. “Kemalism is the root of Turkey’s problems,” says Fuat Ekinci, one of dozens of fathers accompanying their daughters at a recent protest rally organized by Ozgur Der in Istanbul’s religiously devout

Fatih district. “It is justification for the constant interference of the military in Turkish politics and a source of power for the old guard of Turkish politicians. Without Kemalism, these men become obsolete so they cling to it for their lives.” In recent years, especially in light of rising fundamentalism elsewhere, the confrontation between Kemalists and religiously minded Turks has intensified, culminating in June and July in a crisis over who would be the next president, and subsequent snap elections that brought the Islamist-leaning AKP, which had been in power, back with a renewed force and vigour.

That victory has reinvigorated girls like Ayar. “We were always hopeful that we would get

the opportunity to be what we want,” she says. “This ban has been going on for 10 years, but now there is real hope for us. Unfortunately, people like my older sister have missed their chance, but I want to make up for that.” Studying abroad in a country such as Austria is an option for some. “But most foreign universities require Turks to have at least a year or two of education in a Turkish university before they consider them for admission,” says Ahmet Ocakli, spokesman for Onder, an organization that represents Turkey’s religious high school graduates, known in Turkey as Imam Hatip schools. “The goal of our organization is to help the most gifted of our students continue their education abroad.” Currently, Onder has 1,000 students enrolled in foreign universities, half of whom are women. But that only represents a fraction of the students who come to the organization looking for help.

“Consider the numbers,” says Ocakli. “Currently we have 150,000 students enrolled in Imam Hatip schools. According to our own figures, 74 per cent of these students do not wish to continue on with a religious education after they graduate. That leaves well over 100,000 students wanting a secular university education. We don’t have the money to help all of them.” Much like Catholic parents in Canada, the majority of parents of Imam

Hatip students only want their children to have some religious education. “But if you choose to attend an Imam Hatip school, you will be penalized,” Ocakli adds.

In fact, Turkey’s university admissions system requires all high school graduates to take a nationwide entrance exam, much like the American SAT system. The higher a student scores, the better their prospects of getting into a top university. In 1997, however, after Turkey’s first Islamic party took power and was subsequently forced out in Turkey’s most recent military coup, the military-led government changed the rules to a percentile-based point system. Since then, students graduating from a secular, public high school have their exam scores multiplied by 0.8 to determine their admission points. An Imam Hatip student has his or her score multiplied by 0.3. “So even if an Imam Hatip graduate scores 100 per cent on their entrance exam, they will only receive 30 points” says Ocakli. “That’s the same number of points as a secular student who has badly failed the exam.”

For women, the problem is compounded by the head-scarf ban, also brought into force following the ’97 coup. Many fall into depression once they realize their education is finished. Some decide to continue on with a religious education, others simply accept the inevitable and become housewives. It’s a paradoxical twist in the logic of Turkey’s secular laws: the system itself produces more Islamists.

For parents, it’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, many are proud of their daughters for standing up for their religion; on the other they have to witness the disintegration of their children’s dreams. “It’s difficult for me,” says Muhittin Durak, whose daughter was accepted to one of Turkey’s top universities in Ankara but refuses to attend because of the head-scarf ban. “I will accept it if my daughter chooses to remove her head scarf so she can attend university. I’m like any parent: I want my children to be successful. But if someone forces her to remove it, I will be the first person at the university gate protesting.”

He may not need to go to such lengths. The AKP has promised legislation that will ease the ban on head scarves, at least at universities. And now that the party controls both the parliament and the presidency, there appears to be little standing in its way. Whether the army intervenes yet again remains to be seen, but for Ayar the political intrigues are secondary to the realities of her own life. “Nobody can understand how we feel unless they live this,” she says dryly. “It’s a tragicomedy: the outside world sees us as Islamic but inside Turkey, we are forced to be something else altogether.” M