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Headscarves Pull Turkey East and West

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Istanbul: In bustling Istanbul, the city of 15 million that straddles Europe and Asia, headscarves -- from austere greys to fashionable red plaids -- have sprouted like spring flowers. Where once there were few, now perhaps a quarter of adult women wear some form of head covering. Observing the starkly different presentations of female identity, a visitor wonders whether Breck curls, plunging bodices and tight-fitting jeans can co-exist with covered heads, dour frocks and floor length coats?

To some Turks, headscarves are the thin wedge of Islamic fundamentalism, a warning that secular Turkey could succumb to religious extremism and become another Iran.

When Kemal Ataturk's 1923 revolution overthrew the feudal sultanate that had ruled Turkey for 600 years, it became illegal for men to wear the Islamic fez while women were discouraged from wearing the headscarf. This secularist orthodoxy endured until the current conservative government, strengthened by a second electoral victory in 2007, felt strong enough to begin rolling back some of the Kemalist restrictions on personal freedom. So far, Turkey's powerful military -- which since 1960 has staged four coups in the name of defending secularism -- has stood aside.

Observing stylish, uncovered women seated next to young traditionally attired women on a city bus, I ask the graduate student in psychology, with whom I've been talking, what he thinks of the controversy. He replies that there is no need for concern. "It is," says Yavuz, "nothing more than an expression of freedom." Isn't that what democracy is all about, he asks? "Believe me," he continues, "there is absolutely nothing to fear."

Nikar Goksel, a young American-Turkish researcher at the European Stability Institute in Istanbul, agrees. For her, a woman's choice whether to cover or not to cover is a welcome manifestation of freedom in a society that for centuries held women in subservience. She defends Turkey's conservative government, which she says has addressed what its predecessors did not, the deeper issues of gender equality like equality in the courts, greater educational and employment opportunities, and child care. "Banning women who wear the headscarf from university or excluding them from workplaces does not help the larger goal of empowering women. It actually serves the men who try to keep their women dependent." The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, has not taken a stand on the headscarf, but it is supportive of the government's promotion of freedom of expression, political pluralism and cultural diversity.

Volkan, a 28-year-old computer programmer, denounces the headscarf, which he regards as backward and dangerous. "What Turkey needs," he tells me, "is more technology, more modernity, more foreign contact" so that it can become a member of the European Union. He says husbands and fathers often assert their familial dominance by insisting that wives and daughters wear the headscarf, which is seen as a political statement in support of the government. Some Islamic sects give money to families whose women wear traditional religious attire.

The tension that pulls educated women in two directions is felt acutely felt by Ayca, an Istanbul woman of 25 who is visiting her parents from Birmingham, England, where she has worked in public relations for three years. She speaks of the anguish of wanting to please her parents, but also to live an independent life. What, she asks, if she were to bring home an English boyfriend? If she returns to live in Istanbul, would she find the same professional opportunities? And, she asks, what about pressures to embrace the accoutrements of her Muslim faith, like the headscarf?

Innocuous or dangerous, female attire in Istanbul is strikingly diverse, particularly among those wearing the headscarf. As yet there is no dominant traditional style. While older women tend to choose less colorful scarves, tied simply under the chin along with modest, shapeless, floor length clothing, younger women often choose a brightly colored scarf that is loosely tied, sometimes even with a tuft of hair showing. They can be seen in equally bright and tightly-fitting pants that leave little imagination as to the shape of their bodies. At the extreme, a tiny minority wear the Arab-style long black chadors, that cover everything except the face.

Turkey has come a long way from the time only fifty years ago when foreigners were not allowed to travel beyond the Euphrates River to the remote regions of the east. It is in rural Turkey, where many of the country's 52 million people reside, that religion remains dominant.

In his memoir of growing up in Istanbul in the 1960s, Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk remembers that the religious poor of the city were always viewed in his upper-class milieu as an obstacle to progress. Pamuk writes that for his family, the piety of the poor, "their good-hearted purity carried a price. It was making the dream of a modern, prosperous, westernized Turkey more difficult to achieve."

The complexities of the headscarf debate eludes many Americans, for whom freedom, tolerance, and diversity are axioms of our democracy. We would ask why is the headscarf such a big deal? Europeans, living among larger, often veiled Islamic populations, tend to be more fearful of Muslim fundamentalism and view the headscarf with suspicion. President Obama, in Normandy in June with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was asked whether Muslim girls should be permitted to wear headscarves in school. He affirmed America's commitment to freedom of religious expression and concluded "we're not going to tell people what to wear." Sarkozy supports the French law that bans headscarves from schools.

Istanbul is a paradox, a modern city where the faithful are called to prayer five times a day. Istanbul both connects and divides -- Europe and Asia, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Now its women are divided. The headscarf pulls them in opposite directions -- between east and west, between modernity and tradition, between male dictates and their own, often painful, choices.