I can still remember my terrified reaction on first encountering Arab women dressed in chadors, covered from head to toe in black sheets with only their eyes visible. It was at Kuwait airport and I was three years old, arriving with my mother and brother to join our father who had started working for the oil company.
"Ghosties!" I cried, clutching my mother’s skirts in terror, as the black phantoms silently glided behind the men in long white nightshirts moving about the terminal. It took a while for her to convince me that they weren’t ghosts but ladies, and this was the way they dressed in Kuwait. But they were a rare sight, usually confined indoors at their husbands’ beck and call, here at the airport in transit.
I learned that this style of clothing was considered obligatory for Arab women because of the book of rules that dominated their lives, that saturated their culture and society, and that determined their subordinate position in the world – the holy Koran. The word of God as dictated by the Prophet Mohammed; which includes two surahs that order Muslim women to cover up:
‘And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.’ Surah 24, verses 30–31
‘O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them [when they go abroad]. That will be better, that so they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.’ Surah 33, verse 59
Apart from the unquestionable word of the Koran, the faithful also adhere to the Hadith recollections about the Prophet, where it is reported that when the daughter of Abu Bakr appeared to him flimsily dressed, Mohammed is reported to have told her: "O Asmaa! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands."
Thence the cover-up, the all-covering black chador, and the hiding away of the women from the lustful gaze of other men.
"I leave you no calamity more hurtful to man than woman!" Mohammed is reported to have said. "Oh assembly of women, give alms, though it be your gold and silver ornaments, for verily ye are mostly of Hell on the Day of Resurrection."
The chador is a rarer sight here in Turkey, where I now live, half a century after that early initiation into culture-shock, but not so very uncommon, and my mind still mutters "Ghosties!" as the black shapes pass by, in small groups, or behind a stern faced husband. Locals nickname them ‘kara fatmas’ (black beetles.)
Kuwait is a monarchy where Islamic law is the main source of legislation. But Turkey is a democracy with a non-religious secular constitution, and women are free to vote, to work, to drink, to drive, to choose their own religion. But, although the government is secular, 99 per cent of the population is Moslem. Take a walk down the main shopping centres of Istanbul, and alongside the thoroughly modern misses sporting the latest fashions, flashy jewelry, tinted hair and makeup, you will also find those with their hair covered by a scarf. The reasons might range from bowing to family pressure, a gesture to cultural tradition, or a statement of solidarity with Islamic law in Iran.
The further one goes into the burgeoning suburbs of Istanbul the more the headscarf proliferates, not gaily colored like the ones you see on the girls in Istiklal Caddessi, but plain and knotted under the chin, the body covered by the obligatory ankle-length raincoat. Almost a chador.
In the sprawling outskirts of the city where poverty is rife and education neglected, there is a growing frustrated population that would gladly jettison the godless secularist republic founded by Kemal Ataturk, and welcome the institution of Shariah law. It was their vote which swept the current Islamic-oriented government, the AKP, the Justice and Development Party into power. The powerful Kemalist army allowed them to take power because its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that it is Islamic in the same sense that Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe are Christian, and it is committed to the secularism of the Turkish state. It is merely opposed to the petty exclusion of religious symbolism from public life, such as the ban on women wearing headscarves in state-owned buildings . The headscarf ban was the cause this week of a murder which shocked the nation.
Turkey’s current law on headscarves (which dates back to the 1986) bans civil servants, students and staff at private and state universities and schools, medical staff and members of parliament from wearing the ‘turban’ in public offices, including schools and government administrative positions on the grounds that it would be a breach of constitutional secularism.
In theory, the ban only applies to people on state premises or in state-controlled businesses, but recent court decisions have upheld penalties imposed on civil servants who wear the headscarf in their private life outside work.
Late last year the Council of State upheld a ruling that the Ankara governorate had been justified in refusing a teacher promotion because she wore a headscarf on her way to and from school. The Council of State made reference to the secular order imposed by the Turkish constitution and stated that education should be "kept at a distance from dogma and influences that run counter to science." High level members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were critical and negative about the ruling, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is recently quoted as saying: "we face many obstacles at the Council of State. We will either overcome these or we will walk together with those who understand this".
On Wednesday morning in Ankara, a gunman broke into the chamber where judges from the Council of State were meeting and opened fire, declaring himself a "soldier of Allah". Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin was killed, and 5 others injured in the shooting.
As he ran from the building screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ the killer was captured by the police. He turned out to be a 29-year old lawyer Alparslan Arslan, who had been under surveillance prior to the attack due to his alleged links with the radical Islamist group Hizbullah. He told police that the bullets were punishment for the controversial decision on the teacher and her headscarf.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attack, but rejected suggestions that it could be linked to the AKP’s espousal of greater rights for Islamists. He warned that it would harmful to try to seek political gain from the incident, referring to the opposition Republican People Party (CHP).
Deniz Baykal, the leader of the CHP, said that the attack had targeted Turkey’s secular constitution as well as the Council of State." Turkey is being dragged toward a very dangerous place," he said.
Criticism was leveled at an Islamic newspaper for targeting the judges who had upheld the banning of the headscarf on public duty by publishing their photographs on its front page last week.
The day after the shooting more than 20,000 people, including senior jurists, lawyers, lecturers, students, members of parliament and retired military officers marched to the mausoleum of Ataturk in Ankara to protest the attack, shouting "Turkey is secular and will remain secular" and "Government resign!"
Many also voiced their angry indignation at the recent grenade attacks (three in a week!) on the Istanbul headquarters of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s independent radical republican newspaper which has been sharply critical of the AKP, saying it is trying to undermine the country’s secular system of government, and which recently ran a media campaign warning of what it sees as rising Islamic fundamentalism.
"AKP buildings are also being bombed," was the dismissive comment on the Cumhuriyet attacks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan’s wife, Emine, wears a headscarf. So does the Foreign Minister’s wife, Hayrunisa. In fact most of the Cabinet members’ wives also wear headscarves. For this reason the pro-secular establishment excludes them from state functions and dinners. This doesn’t please them.
And indeed, surely they have the right to feel the ban on the headscarf to be a discriminatory infringement of women’s freedom of expression and religion, as well as of their right to education (Hayrusina was barred from attending university for wearing one.) The ban on headscarves clearly infringes upon women’s right to religious freedom. But enforced veiling should also be opposed as an infringement upon a woman’s rights and freedom. Is that possible in an Islamic state, where the Koran rules and hijab for women is proscribed by law?
A few years ago an old student of mine returned for a visit to school. I remembered her as a bright intelligent teenager, witty and funny, crazy about Bon Jovi. I was shocked by the change in her appearance. In place of the grey school skirt, the white blouse, jacket and tie, she now wore a long grey coat, buttoned from neck to toe, and a beige headscarf tied tightly over her hair, only her face and hands visible.
"What happened?" I asked.
"From one uniform to another," she grinned, not unhappily. Her parents were devout Muslims.
A Turkish friend was telling me about her weekend. "We went to Camlica Park on Sunday but I felt uncomfortable in my jeans. All the women there were in dressed in their long coats and headscarves. I was getting strange looks."
Shades of the ‘Stepford Wives’?
The renewed focus on the headscarf issue sparked by the deadly attack on the State Judges has increased tensions between Turkey’s secularists and the AKP, and they seem set to rise ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Should the headscarf ban be lifted? How much of a difference would it make? Would the government offices, hospitals, schools and universities of Turkey suddenly become flooded with fundamentalist women in headscarves and life go on at its normal secular pace, or would the unchecked dress code lead, as those who fear it might, to an Islamic theocracy similar to that in Iran under the guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini?