Headscarves and Turkish High School Girls
By 10:00 a.m. we were up, out of the house, and on a bus heading out of Istanbul's Üsküdar district. Neşe, our CouchSurfing hostess and long-time English teacher, had such a good time taking us to her adult English class on Christmas Eve, that she'd promised her high school students we'd come for a visit.
En route, I was genuinely surprised when Neşe told me that many of the teenage girls she taught had never even been over to the European side of the city (where both tourists and historical artifacts are abundant). Yeesh. I wondered: scared, short leash, or just not interested?
The building was a tall, vast multi-story structure, alive with the comings and goings of teenagers and faculty. We were escorted to the large teacher lounge and served tea while we stashed our things and sipped on tea.
In this school, just like at the adult level seen earlier in the week, all instructors wear white overcoats (much like a doctor would at a hospital). But I was a bit confused to find the vast majority of the female students wearing headscarves. Such things have been considered illegal in government buildings for decades, though Neşe told me this was indeed a public school.
In Turkey, as elsewhere in Europe, the headscarf has become a symbol not only of political Islam, but of the oppression of women. When, in 2004, France outlawed the wearing of headscarves in public schools, for example, it was in the name of secularism and gender equality. The two were taken to be synonymous.
It was nevertheless a boon for both religious freedom and civil rights when the Turkish parliament voted in February 2008 to end the headscarf prohibition at the university level, amending a strict secularist constitution that was adopted after a military coup in 1980.
Each camp in the headscarf dispute predictably distorts the other's intentions. Secularists envision more women acceding to pressure to cover their hair. They fear that the governing Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party, is pursuing a hidden agenda—one that begins with lifting the headscarf ban and ends in transforming a secular republic into an Islamist state.
But with a staggering 25% of Turkey's population of 14 years of age or younger, the values instilled on today's abundant youth will have sweeping changes for the country as they mature and themselves takeover positions of power and influence. Turkey is fast approaching a tipping point in political and social reforms that will likely see widespread revolution within the next two or three decades.