Why One Turkish Woman Dons a Scarf

SHE says she is a victim of intolerance, bigotry, and closed-mindedness.

''People are very, very prejudiced against [us],'' says Esra Karatash, a junior at Istanbul's elite Bosporos University. ''There's a Turkish saying they use. They say our 'minds are filled with cobwebs.' ''

Her English is flawless, she laughs easily, and she speaks with confidence. Educated in an American-run high school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she briefly lived in the US as an infant and has traveled widely in the US, Europe, and the Mideast.

''They assume you to be ignorant ... and that they're very open-minded,'' says Ms. Karatash, who is studying English language and literature. ''When they are the ones who are very, very ignorant.''

Her dream is to work for an international organization, possibly the World Bank or UNICEF. But as she speaks, students sprawled near her on the grass eye her warily.

''I started wearing the scarf after the first semester of my freshman year,'' she says, referring to the white silk scarf covering her hair. ''People who knew me before still treat me like a normal person. This doesn't change who I am.''

Karatash is one of a handful of female students here who have begun wearing a traditional Muslim scarf to cover their hair -- a lesser version of the full facial veils women are required to wear in some Islamic countries.

Muslim scarfs or veils were barred here until recently. For decades, the strict secularism of the founder of modern Turkey -- Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- held sway. But as Turkey has fitfully moved away from Ataturk's vision of a secular Turkish society, more veils have appeared, and relations have grown tense.

Karatash says some students openly harassed her when she first began wearing her veil. Now, most simply ignore her.

''Religious people tend to stick together,'' she says. ''It's as though there are two separate worlds.''

Karatash, dressed in a white skirt, blouse, and veil, could not look more out of place at the university. Most students dress in blue jeans. Backpacks are slung over shoulders, sweat shirts say ''Brandeis'' and ''Georgetown,'' and designer sunglasses are everywhere.

For Karatash, such open Westernization is a tragic legacy of Ataturk.

''You talk to the population, and they say they are a Muslim, but they don't know anything about who they are,'' she laments as she picks blades of grass from the ground. ''Religion became taboo here.''

Stereotyping of Muslims by Western media continues in Turkey, she says. ''I watched the movie 'Not Without My Daughter.' It was an unbelievable exaggeration,'' she says.

KARATASH says any increase in religion in Turkey is a positive thing. The recent electoral victories of the religious Welfare Party reflect the public's longing for a return to Islam, she says, and are not a result of people just casting protest votes, as some analysts suggest.

''A lot of people I know say they don't know what to believe in,'' she says. ''There is a certain kind of awakening going on.'' For her, the decision to start wearing a veil was simple. She says she was raised in a religious but liberal family and that the decision was her own.

''Being a Muslim you have to accept certain limits,'' she says. ''I said, if I am a Muslim why aren't I doing these things? I should either do these things or say I am not a Muslim.''

When asked whether she feared that religious groups here would pressure people to become more religious if they gained control of the government, she said no.

''No one can impose Islam on another person ... That's never been a problem,'' she says. An Islamic government ''can only do the will of the people.''

Asked if she feared an authoritarian government like that in Iran, she said, ''Turkey will never end up like Iran.''

Nothing about life in Saudi Arabia's strict society bothers her, she adds. The barring of women from certain jobs and the outlawing of women driving cars is not a problem. ''It's a limitation, it's not so much of a problem. They all have servants who can drive them,'' she says smiling.

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