Turks tangled in politics of scarves

One week ahead of national elections, Turkey's ban on head covering is fueling controversy.

Elif Erdogan has a dream: someday, she won't be forced to take off her headscarf in order to enter a classroom.

Ipek Calislar has a nightmare: someday, women in Turkey will be required to cover themselves in headscarves, as they are in some Muslim countries – in her eyes a "catastrophe."

Yet the two women, a future math teacher and a veteran journalist, share one thing: a mutual skepticism for the way Turkey's politicians are using the issue of the "turban" – as scarves covering a woman's hair and neck are called here – to attract voters before national elections on Sunday.

What is ensuing in Turkey is more than a hubbub over headwear. The line between those who cover and those who don't marks one of the many fissures in Turkish society – deepened by the fact that those who do cannot work in government offices, hold an elected seat in parliament, or attend a state school or university.

Scarves – and religious garb in general – have been considered off-limits in official offices of the Republic of Turkey since founding father Kemal Ataturk introduced state secularism 79 years ago today. But after elections in 1995, when the Islamist Welfare Party – predecessor of the AKP or Justice and Development Party – tried to undo some of the pro-Western tenets embraced by Ataturk, the no-headscarf policy was extended to many schools and universities as well.

A week ago, the Islam-centric AKP spoke up for the first time on the issue, though their supporters basically knew where they stood.

"Nov. 3 will be the day when the torture of girls and women will end," Bulent Arinc, an AKP candidate, told a rally in Kahramanmaras, a city in southeastern Turkey. "Our students, because of their dress, cannot even enter the yards of their schools. I can only call this torture," he said. "We swear that this is going to be solved, and we'll do everything possible to solve this."

Tarhan Erdem, a polling expert with Konda Ltd., says that if AKP chooses headscarves as one of its first battles, Turkey will be enmeshed in crisis soon. "If they unleash this thing," says Mr. Erdem, opponents will say the Islamists are trying to change the secular constitution. "There could be a real clash over this issue, and that would make military intervention more likely."

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, Turkey's chief prosecutor applied to ban the AKP, despite the fact that it is the country's most popular political party and is slated to get about 30 percent of the vote. In September, an elections board barred AKP's charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from being a candidate for prime minister. He was convicted of sedition five years ago after he read from a poem that used the mosque as a metaphor for militancy.

Analysts say that the prosecutor's case against the AKP is unlikely to be resolved in time for the elections. Moreover, the last-minute effort to keep AKP away from the polls might serve only to shore up even more sympathy among Turkey's mostly conservative voters.

Among them, however, will not be Ms. Erdogan, who is not related to Turkey's hottest politician by the same name. Each day, when she goes to Istanbul University to attend class, she peels off the headscarf she now wears firmly wound around the edges of her face. She does it reluctantly. She finds it embarrassing and paternalistic.

"When I get to the door, I take it off, and then when I leave, I put it back on. It really bothers me," says Erdogan, who is studying to receive a bachelor's degree in math.

However, she will not vote for AKP or the other Islamic party, Saadet. "I'm against those who use this as a matter to win votes," she says. "That is why they [the AKP] have problems, because they're making a big controversy of it."

Erdogan, who plans to become a teacher, says her family was "sad" when they realized that she would have to take off her scarf each day to attend courses. But they respected her decision to continue her education. Her husband, a teacher of Islamic studies, felt the same.

"The government does not tolerate me as much as my family does," says Erdogan, who sat on a stone bench outside Istanbul's New Mosque to chat before a class. "My family leaves it up to me to decide whether to cover. The government doesn't."

In the last elections, in 1999, one woman tried to enter parliament with her head covered, just as she did while campaigning; she was promptly removed.

The result, Erdogan says, is that religious women are kept away from higher education and prominent jobs. She compromises by taking her scarf off for class only to prove the authorities wrong. "They want to show that religion is putting people back. They think everyone who is covered is a threat to the state, and that's not true," she says.

Erdogan won't say for whom she will vote next Sunday. "I don't really trust any party in Turkey right now," she scoffs. But if the state's constraints on religion get any tighter, she may – she regrets to say – one day vote for a party like AKP.

Ms. Calislar is a liberal thinker, and a prominent journalist and editor at Cumhuriyet, the country's oldest newspaper. In theory, she thinks women should have the right to choose what they want to wear – and whether they want to cover their hair. In practice, she suspects that most who do so don't have a choice.

"When you don't let a 17-year-old girl go to university because of what she wears, that's a kind of violence." says Calislar, who wears bohemian glass beads around her neck, and her golden hair tied in a bun.

Still, it bothers her to see other women – far more than there used to be – under wraps. "As an ideology, I'm against it. Mostly it's the husbands and fathers who force the young women to do it," says Calislar, sitting in the paper's newsroom, buzzing with as many women as men – and none of them covered.

She admits, however, that those who dress according to codes that some Muslims believe is prescribed by the Koran are living in a different reality than hers. "I don't believe in a religion, so that woman who wears a scarf, perhaps I can't understand her."

Turkey's urban intelligentsia, as well as the military, do not mask their desire to keep Islam's influence on public life to a minimum. When Calislar looks to Turkey's neighbors, for example, she sees Iran, and worries that Islamist politicians here want the same. "People don't really know what is coming from them, and we feel we are in danger," she says.

Were the AKP really concerned about women's issues, she charges, they would have put more women on their list of candidates for parliament. "The turban is a tool of propaganda," she says. "If they were trying to support women, they'd have more of them as candidates."

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