I’m just back from a week in Istanbul. I hadn’t been to this magnificent, complex, confounding city in over a decade, and the changes were striking. I knew that Turkey was moving further away from the secularism of its founder, Ataturk, and closer to becoming an Islamic state, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality of seeing so many women in head scarves and occasionally full burkhas.
I was there with a close friend, an architect, and her daughter, a student at Oberlin College, renting an apartment in a nineteenth century building near the Galata Tower. On our first day, visiting the Blue Mosque, we removed our shoes and donned head scarves as we prepared to enter. My friend’s daughter was immediately told in a harsh way that she could not go inside. The guard spoke no English, but he pointed at her bare legs below a not-too-short skirt.
She was devastated and moved to tears by this humiliation in front of a crowd of hostile men as only a 19-year-old feminist college student could be. From then on, she was wary.
For my part, I was there not so much to see the sights but rather to observe the women. I am about to embark on a volunteer project where I will serve as a mentor for women in Afghanistan with a group called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, helping them tell their often harrowing stories to the world.
I tried to make eye contact and smile at the covered women, especially the younger ones, but few would return my overture. Yet many were laughing and enjoying an outing with their husbands and children. Often the husbands and wives held hands as they strolled the lovely area around Galata Tower in the mild weather of October. I admired how they made their head scarves a fashion statement, part of their overall style.
When I visited a center for Afghan women in Queens last month, I learned that many women like the head scarf; it saves them the trouble of having to wash and style their hair each day. My personal belief is that people should do as they please when it comes to their religious customs, but I have much to learn about the Muslim faith or the role of women in that culture.
Are head scarves always a symbol of male domination and repression of women? I wondered. Are they ever a sign of beauty and reverence?
And is there any similarity between Turkish women and the Afghan women I will soon meet over the internet?
Statistics point to increased cases of deliberate injuries to women across Turkey, up to 207,253 in 2011 from 189,377 in 2010, according to official data collected by the National Police Headquarters in the capital, Ankara.
And according to The New York Times, “The culture wars over women’s role in Turkish society also reflect tensions in a majority Muslim country where the state’s official secularism is clashing with an ascendant class of religious conservatives. With their rise, rights groups say, men appear to be increasingly acting with impunity against women.”
How different is this than in my own country, the United States? Women are faced with the possibility of losing control over their own reproductive rights because of religious conservatives. And while I was in Istanbul, there were more appalling news stories regarding the issue of pregnancy and rape. Why should men call the shots? I often ask my daughter, a college student. What happened to equal rights?
For me, the danger is in religious fanaticism that seeks to keep women in check, and if head scarves are part of this, then I will have to think twice about them.