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Turkey’s Flirtation With Stricter Islamic Practices Finds Resistance



Max Lindenman - published on 01/12/15 - updated on 06/07/17

While government debates the wearing of the hijab, young people remain decidedly secular

Yonca did not want to guide me through the Blue Mosque.  She’d taken proprietorial pride in showing me the Viking graffiti chiseled into the marble of the Hagia Sophia, the enormous stone cats guarding the Topkapı Museum and the Gorgon heads supporting the pillars in the Basilica Cistern.  But whenever I mentioned wanting to take in the last of Sultanahmet’s great landmarks, she made excuses.  It was getting late.  It would soon be time for late-afternoon prayers.  Wouldn’t I rather eat some nice meatballs?  
No, I told her.  I did not want to eat any nice meatballs.  I wanted to hit the circuit and see the Blue Mosque.  Because Yonca, though a Catholic catechumen, is Turkish, and because Turks pride themselves above all else on their hospitality, she let out a sigh like a white flag.  When we reached the entrance, she accepted a loaner hijab but draped it loosely over the very back of her occiput.   After I’d snapped a dozen photos, I turned around and found her standing at the exit, by a table on which stood a scale model of the building.  She had shed her hijab altogether and was twirling it in the manner of a burlesque stripper of Sally Rand’s generation.  

As I rushed over, prepared to mansplain the virtue of do-as-the-Romans, she pointed at the model and stage-whispered: “WHAT IS THIS, A MOSQUE FOR ANTS?  IT WOULD HAVE TO BE…TWO TIMES THIS BIG?”  She was doing Ben Stiller in Zoolander; her scowl was dead-on.  I should have laughed – later on, I did laugh.  But at the time, all I could do was hope our heads wouldn’t end up in the same secret chamber as Vlad the Impaler’s.

Yonca’s coup of guerrilla theater, and her disgust for all things Islamic, was my practical introduction to the headscarf and its importance in Turkish politics, which can’t be overstated.  Though the new republic, determined to be secular in the post-1905 French style, did not outlaw the hijab outright, it did succeed in stigmatizing it enough to bar covered women effectively from working in the public sector.  In 1981, following a military coup, the National Security Council banned headscarves for university students.   Ever since, nervous secularists have viewed covered heads as early warning signs of an Islamist takeover.  

Religious women fought the ban, framing their cause in terms of personal choice and individual rights.  For many decades, Turkey was a topsy-turvy world in which the admirers of liberal Western traditions ruled with a mailed fist over pious Muslims who – by their own account — just wanted to do their thing.  Now, with the Islamist Justice and Development or AK Party in power for over a decade, Islamic dress is finally getting its day.  In 2011, the government began permitting university students to wear headscarves.  Two years later, it lifted the ban for civil servants.  This past September, it amended a law to permit girls as young as 10 to cover their heads in the classroom.  

This raises the question of whether the pendulum will ever stop – whether people like Yonca will soon feel pressure to adopt Islamic norms even when they’re not being dragged against their better judgment into mosques.  Fully 69% of Turks who participated in a recent University of Michigan study preferred that women cover their hair to some degree – a percentage almost exactly equal the percentage of women who, various studies report, actually do cover their hair.  From the Western point of view, marginalizing such a large minority for so long seems draconian.  But giving that majority its will would still leave an enormous number of unhappy outliers.    

This past July, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç set his sights higher – or rather, a few inches lower — declaring for the record that women shouldn’t laugh loudly in public.  In defiance, women around the world posted “laughing selfies.”  The gesture lent itself to a few lines of good copy, but did nothing to prevent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Arınç’s AK Party compatriot, from winning that summer’s presidential elections handily.

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