#10yearchallenge: The headscarf issue in Turkey

#10yearchallenge: The headscarf issue in Turkey

The #10YearChallenge has led to a trend on Turkish Twitter where women are sharing photos of themselves before and after they’ve removed their headscarves

While there is a huge risk of jumping into wrong conclusions by just reading the comments posted with the pictures, it is still worth making some observations.

For those who might not be familiar with Turkey’s recent past it might be right to start with one particular tweet of which the account said she fought for the rights of women wearing headscarf in the past and then she has fought first against herself then against her family and friends to take her headscarf off.

The difficulties headscarf-wearing women had to face in the past have been one of the issues that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have capitalized to consolidate its voters. Wearing the headscarf was banned in public service, as well as in schools, creating a huge wave of resignations among conservative/pious circles.

The 1990’s have seen heated debates on headscarves. Men subscribing to political Islam used it against the secular establishment to advance their cause, while for women wearing the headscarf their struggle was less about “political power,” but more about freedom in terms of “fundamental liberties.” And it was not just about the right to study or the right to work in the public sector but also about “getting out of home,” according to Ayşe Çavdar, an academic who was also among those who took the decision to uncover.

In other words, it was meant to have a “liberating effect” on women (from conservative/pious segments) as they would be able to live the lives they want as a result of studying and working and becoming less dependent on their families.

In an interview she gave to Büşra Cebeci, who wrote a series of stories about women taking off their scarves (published in February 2018 on the BIANET news portal), Çavdar criticized conservative women for having left this struggle midway.

Indeed, a lot has changed during the 16 years under the AK Party rule. While conservative/pious circles used to criticize the secular/liberal circles for exerting pressure on women to uncover, now the latter is accusing the former of exerting pressure on women to cover up. While there has certainly been cases where the wives of some businessmen or public officials got covered to get preferential treatment from the government, the number of women wearing headscarves has not changed in the course of the past 10 years, according to a recent research of Konda, a prominent polling company.

Independent of the number of those who removed their headscarves, the fact that young women have shown the courage to make it known to a greater public is significant, especially in view of the current political and social climate which rather rewards the opposite.
Some of them have shared their photos with comments equating uncovering with freedom. Others have reacted by saying it had nothing to do with freedoms. “We are just as free with our headscarves,” said one in her Twitter post.

Indeed you cannot judge whether a women is free (feels free) by looking at whether she wears a headscarf or not.

The question we need to ask here is this: To what degree do headscarf-wearing women feel women in Turkey are free and enjoy equally all their rights? Now that they won their battle to wear the headscarf, is the struggle over for them?

Now that women are in the public space, do they live the lives they want?

It is difficult to give a positive answer to that question. Covered women are present in the public space but not on equal terms with men. And because some of them benefit from certain privileges and because of the polarization in the country, instead of continuing their struggle against the party in government, they continue to support it forgetting their initial demands for total freedom.

Successive polls have shown that more women than men have been voting for the AK Party. The financial assistance given by the state to housewives for giving birth to a child, for taking care of the elderly and the handicapped has played a crucial role in the support given by conservative/pious women to the AK Party.

But polls have been showing that the AK Party has become less attractive to the younger generations. The micro trend we have seen on Twitter about the headscarf might indicate that young women from AK Party’s usual strongholds might be on a deserting mood.