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The headscarf girls

As a Muslim woman, I have often been asked if I would ever consider “covering up”. In my late teens and early 20s, my response was almost always a headstrong and “feminist” NO. I was motivated by my belief that Islam meant more than just your outward appearance. I also felt that such a decision must be about my choice and my spirituality. I did not believe that one should be forced by family or society to comply. Ironically, the reasons why I chose not to wear one as a young woman — personal choice, feminist ideals and human rights — are the same reasons why I would consider wearing one now!

I recently read Snow by Orhan Pamuk. The story is set in a small town in Turkey and revolves around a journalist/poet who comes to the town to cover the local elections and investigate the truth behind the claim that young women have been committing suicide because they were forced to remove their headscarf.

Quite coincidentally, on the day that I completed the book there were reports of the ongoing campaign by women’s organisations in Turkey to remove the headscarf ban. At present, women are not allowed to wear a headscarf in universities and if they do, they are forcibly removed from the campuses. As a result, many Muslim women have either refused to go to university or have left Turkey to study elsewhere. (The phrase “educate a woman and you educate a society” comes to mind.)

I am not sure if the majority of the women in Turkey want to wear a headscarf or not. But you have to wonder about this law — Turkey is a secular state with a population that is more than 90% Muslim. This law denies these women the fundamental right to choose. And yes, there are myriad reasons why women have chosen to wear the headscarf — a political symbol used by political parties in Turkey; an enforcement by fathers, brothers and husbands; a commitment to their faith; or a response to feeling as if their rights as women are being violated. Whatever the reason, women must be given the right to choose.

It is assumed that Turkey needed to enforce the head-scarf ban to allay fears of Islamic fanaticism (post-9/11) so close to Europe, and to prove that it had control over any Islamist developments. Unsurprisingly, Turkey has been waiting for more than a decade to be accepted as a member of the EU and thus has to play its cards really well. It is probably the country’s poor economic situation more than the Islam factor that has made the EU membership issue a bit difficult — but I do believe that its largely Muslim population has played a significant role.

The new ruling party believes that the lifting of the ban is a women’s rights issue. Other groups such as the judiciary, business and political parties want to uphold the ban as they fear the secular state slipping into an Islamic state and will lead to Turkey being “less modern”.

An organisation in Istanbul set up to assist headscarf girls’ rights said: “It’s not an issue of modernity, but a question of what modernity should look like. The face of the modern Muslim woman is framed in a headscarf; it is, in a telling moment of irony, a form of freedom … women have every right to participate in the modern world, and the headscarf is a symbol of that participation.”

If a “feminist” (or should I be using “gender activist”?) can burn her bra to make a statement, then perhaps wearing a headscarf should similarly be acknowledged as the Muslim feminist takes centre stage.