“Our Sisters in Headscarves”

In Turkey, both sides want to claim religious women as their own.

A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally on June 16, 2013, in Istanbul.
A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a rally on June 16, 2013, in Istanbul

Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, June 16, with Istanbul’s Taksim Square in a fog of tear gas five miles away, thousands of supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gathered on seaside fair grounds to hear their embattled prime minister speak. For nearly three weeks protesters had filled Taksim and the adjacent Gezi Park, chanting “Tayyip, resign.” Now police had cleared the square, and it was Erdoğan’s turn to show that not all Turkish citizens wanted him gone.

“Gezi Park and Taksim Square have been returned to the people,” Erdoğan shouted, pacing across a large stage. He condemned foreign media, called the protesters terrorists, and reminded the crowd of what he and his party, the AKP, had done for them over the past decade. He addressed his female supporters, many of whom are religiously conservative and cover their heads, warning that the occupiers of Gezi Park were threatening “our sisters in headscarves.” This was not a perfunctory aside. For years Turkey had a long-standing partial ban on the headscarf, but under Erdoğan things have changed: Women can now attend university in headscarves, and they are more visible in the workplace and in the streets. The prime minister knows that his religious supporters fear a new regime would reinstate the ban. And so he gives that shoutout to his base, and each headscarf in the crowd is a potent symbol of his bond with them.

At the same time, the Taksim Square protesters were hyping their own covered women. These were women who sat in the park in spite of things that might typically turn them off, like drinking. They were there even though many secularists see the headscarf as a direct challenge to the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president and an inspiration to the opposition movement (portraits of Atatürk hung throughout Gezi Park). To the protesters, these women—even in small numbers—represent a shifting tide in Turkey. A headscarf signifies religious devotion, but after 10 years of Erdoğan and more than three weeks of arrogance and police brutality, it may not indicate political affiliation.

In Turkey, the headscarf is a deeply controversial symbol, considered by many, rather superficially, to be evidence of the country’s Islamization. For secular women, unveiling was an important part of a package of rights—including suffrage and the outlawing of polygamy—granted to them in the early years of the Turkish Republic. Atatürk emphasized education for women, and the act of living in public—of unveiling and being seen—was considered an expression of modern, republican ideals.

But the strict secular ideology—some of which was codified after the 1980 military coup, when all opposition, including religious, was violently suppressed—marginalized women who wanted to cover. They viewed it as oppression, not liberation. Turkish anthropologist Esra Özyürek spent years interviewing Turkish citizens who were young at the founding of the Republic. One interview with a retired teacher named Vedia, which Özyürek writes about in her book Nostalgia for the Modern, shows how abrupt the shift was. “In those days in Izmir, if women went out in veils, young men would grab their veils and rip them off,” Vedia said. “Or these women would have to pay a fine of sixty or seventy liras for veiling. After several months, veiling totally disappeared.”

These days, a lot of women wear a headscarf in Turkey, including Erdoğan’s wife and the wife of President Abdullah Gül. A thriving fashion industry caters to religious women, and they have taken their place among Turkey’s growing middle class. They are, in short, integrated into society. But, as the past month has shown, they also still shoulder a great burden to be symbols on one side or the other of a divided nation.

“Most of the Western media, at the beginning, covered this as secular versus religious,” Zeynep Alemdar, a professor of international relations at Okan University who has been active in the protest movement, told me. “But we have been trying to show that this is not about secularism.” A reliable way of doing this is to claim the covered women in the crowd—both identifying them and welcoming them—and Alemdar views it as positive approach. It’s certainly time-honored. “This is not a new phenomenon,” Alemdar said. “It’s not unique to the Gezi protesters to, let’s say, co-opt these women.”

That some see religious women as symbols (as opposed to, say, individuals, with nuanced views of politics and religion) might be why there were reports of headscarved women being harassed at the protests. During the second week, when the atmosphere of Gezi Park was still pretty upbeat, I met Deniz Bayram, a lawyer and feminist activist, by the Istanbul Feminist Collective tent. Turkish feminists tend to be divided on the headscarf issue—some see it as inherently oppressive while others view it as a matter of choice. Bayram was adamant that the feminist movement there was inclusive. “Women have been in the streets, in front of the TOMA trucks,” she said (TOMAs are police trucks with mounted water cannons). Among these, she said, were “many” women in headscarves. To unite religious and secular women, the collective was working on a manifesto, part of which would denounce the harassment of religiously conservative women at the protests.

Erdoğan’s failures on women’s rights may just help the opposition bring more of these women into its camp. He brazenly denounces abortion rights, famously suggested that women should populate Turkey by having three children, and has disregarded the high rate of violence against women. “When it comes to violence against women, secular and religious women are together,” Alemdar said.

Still, Erdoğan has legitimate claims to being the liberator of covered women—lifting bans and normalizing the scarf—and for this many are reluctant to turn away from him. The day after Erdoğan’s rally, I explored Üsküdar, a conservative neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side. I met Serife, a religious woman in her 40s who supports Erdoğan and succinctly revealed how the phrase “women’s rights” means different things to different women. “He’s given women a lot of rights. We are more free,” she told me.

Nearby, in an upscale coffee shop, four female university students—political science majors—were eating sticky deserts in an end-of-term celebration. Three were covered in varying styles, one in a conservative brown scarf and long black sleeves. As students, access to education was a personal issue. “Now we can go to universities,” a student named Kubra said. “Other students don’t react to us as strongly.” The girls were eager to talk about their political ideas—all were AKP supporters—and their religious beliefs, and just as eager to dispel the notion that their head coverings were concrete indicators of either.

I heard a similar sentiment from a 20-year-old sociology major named Sumeyye. Her grey headscarf was draped loosely around her neck, and a tight black headband kept her hairline out of sight. “My religion isn’t political,” she told me. “I am mostly an environmentalist.” As a covered woman who doesn’t fit the mold, she often feels out of place, so has been supporting the opposition from afar. “It sometimes bothers me that [leftists and other environmentalists] see me first as religious and second as environmentalist,” she told me. “Most of my friends are like me.”

Sumeyye is grateful to Erdoğan for lifting part of the headscarf ban, but she doesn’t support the AKP. “It’s a false assumption that women in headscarves vote for the AKP,” she told me. As an environmentalist, she objects to the development of Turkey (opposition to development is what started this whole protest movement), and, ironically, she feels that Erdoğan has not made liberating religious women a priority. Women still cannot wear a headscarf in many public buildings. So what does she plan to do about it? “Muslims don’t get angry,” she said. “We are patient. But now women in headscarves can get an education—and we think more critically.” Which means that each side is going to have to start making a more sophisticated pitch.