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Swimming Against the Current: The Women Removing their Headscarves in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Merve Pehlivan explores the different reasons increasing numbers of women are choosing not to stay covered

Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

Swimming Against the CurrentThe Women Removing their Headscarves in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Merve Pehlivan explores the different reasons increasing numbers of women are choosing not to stay covered

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Growing up in a traditionally pious neighbourhood in Istanbul, Ceyda was sent to a Quranic school by the Sunni İsmailağa congregation aged four and made to wear a full black chador (head covering) on the day she began menstruating.

“It was Thursday,” she recalls. “I showed my pad to an older sister at school and received a huge slap on my face.” In the oversized chador she wrapped around herself, crying, she fumbled to move her arms, stumbled, and tried to hold her waist. She was 10.

Now, at 28, far from the devoted Muslim she was, Ceyda has radically transformed her appearance to avoid recognition by her family and old friends, fearing harsh reprisal for leaving behind a life she considered oppressive.

With delight, 21-year-old Sena remembers the day she removed her headscarf: “May 7, 2021. It was like an incredible movie scene. From the metro station, I went up the escalator and felt the sunlight on my arm. My hair gently swayed in the wind. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world.” 

Many of them manipulated into wearing it as children, thousands of young women in Turkey are abandoning the headscarf in what looks like the twilight of two decades of Islamist rule.

Some of their stories have been published by Yalnız Yürümeyeceksin (‘You Will Not Walk Alone’), a solidarity platform that has received more than 1,800 letters from women who have either already dared to, or are seeking the right moment to remove, their religious covering. 

The headscarf is a politically charged symbol in modern Turkish society.

In 1999, the country’s first headscarved MP, Merve Kavakçı, was driven out of Parliament, with then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit yelling from the rostrum: “Please bring this lady to line.” These televised words became etched in the minds of millions in the country. The incident was  part of the undemocratic moves beginning with a military coup in 1997 seeking to disempower religious politicians.

In 2002, defying the odds of the secularist establishment, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power with significant support from headscarved women. Shunned by the founding elite of the republic for decades, many of them voted for him and are still thankful to the President for granting them the right to go to university, work in the public sector and stand for election.

Begüm, 24, is not one of them. Ten years ago, while Erdoğan’s AKP itself was becoming the establishment, she started to memorise the Quran at a school run by the Hüdâyi congregation. Studying at home, Harry Potter and Marvel films interested her more than the Quran. On her own, she discovered feminism when she was 17.

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At university, she moved to Taksim, home to the biggest anti-Government protest in decades, and regularly joined marches with feminist groups. With an effective ban on free abortion across the country, withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, and rising femicide – women have had a lot to fight for under President Erdoğan’s rule.

On the streets, Begüm liked standing out with her headscarf to support gender equality and LGBTQ rights. But over time, she grew tired of the labels attached to her covering. “I didn’t want to be called a Muslim feminist because that brings along many questions: ‘what about such and such verse in the Quran? If you’re accepting it, you can’t be a feminist’,” she says.

Political affiliation was another label she felt uneasy with. She was constantly asked if she voted for Erdoğan’s party, AKP. “At the pride marches, the police were angrier at me,” Begüm says, referring to her headscarf. “I constantly argued with them, and they would say ‘her father has not taught her manners’. I was nearly detained once.”

Several years before, during a violent face-off, she had hit back at her father for calling her a whore when she had given up her long, black feraje, while still keeping her headscarf. From then, she realised that no matter who attacked her, she could respond. 

“I no longer wanted to vindicate Allah,” she says. “I was already over-exposed to religion.”

The headscarf, over time, became nothing but a sartorial habit for her. She wanted to go out and dance in nightclubs, but not attract judging looks. One night, she had two beers at home, relaxed, and walked out uncovered for the first time. A weight lifted off her shoulders. 

The absence of her headscarf does not put Begüm on a level playing field. Having been deprived of upper secondary school, she’s trying to catch up on Orhan Pamuk, world classics or the theory of evolution. She constantly feels inadequate. Ceyda, meanwhile, was completely banned from formal education.

Despite this, both of them obtained an open education high school diploma and got into university. But, having lost years preparing for the university exams and unable to score well enough for an ambitious degree, Begüm and Ceyda are now older than their classmates and reading subjects they don’t see a future in.

Their experience echoes that of the previous generation.

Following an extensive Islamic curriculum alongside STEM and social sciences, religious imam hatip schools were among the casualties of the the military coup in 1997. Incapacitated, their graduates were practically banned from pursuing higher education and excluded from the high-skill job market.

In 2012, to serve his vision to raise a “pious generation”, Erdoğan reintegrated imam hatip middle schools into the system by introducing the controversial 12-year compulsory education. Since then, the number of these schools has more than tripled. Sena was among their first students. At 11, when her teachers kept telling her how she would burn in hell for every strand of hair she showed, she was so ashamed of her hair, so scared, that she decided to wear a headscarf. 

The 12-year system pushes especially female students outside of formal education, practically reducing mandatory schooling to four years. According to Simge Yardım, women’s secretary of the education union Eğitim-Sen, the Government’s official reports of increased schooling in recent years is unsubstantiated. “More than 1.5 million girl children are kept outside of formal schooling, but we know that significantly more have no access to education,” she says.

Ceyda’s parents, or anyone she knows of, were not fined for keeping their children off school. Yardım confirms that the negligible administrative fines are not enforced. 

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These stories are by no means unique. Betül, 25, also says she went through a cycle of manipulation to wear the headscarf as a child, lost faith in it over time, and uncovered. Upon finding out, her mother wished she had aborted her and her father cut contact with her for a year.

However, not all women’s experiences are grim. Sevgi, 22, simply got bored with long, dark, baggy clothes and decided to leave her headscarf on the day she pricked herself with its fastening pin. Her parents were surprised but her father said “do whatever makes you feel comfortable”, while her brother said he loved her and that he would support her every decision. Sevgi did not uncover because she was losing her religion. She just no longer felt like proving her faith to anyone.

With the economy in free-fall, and recent polls hinting at a defeat in this Sunday’s election, President Erdoğan is seeking every possible vote to secure another mandate. His new hard-line Islamist allies vow to scrap gender equality in regulations and penalise extra-marital sex.

None of the women I spoke to will vote for Erdoğan. Though Sena’s mother urges her to vote for him out of gratitude for the survivor’s pension they have been receiving after her father’s passing. Of the monthly allowance the state pays Sena, her mother gives her barely anything. In defiance of the crippling inflation and her mother’s extreme financial pressure since she’s uncovered, Sena looks forward to full independence after university.

Ceyda, meanwhile, won’t have access to the ballot box. She is one of tens of thousands of domestic abuse survivors in Turkey unable to go back to the neighbourhoods they have fled from. Changing her address to vote elsewhere would reveal her location to her parents. Either option is a serious safety risk for her. 

Aside from the freedom to not style her hair, Sena misses nothing from her years wearing a headscarf. Ceyda too doesn’t look back on her former life. Her eyes are set on making a living as soon as possible. She knows that all the mountains she’s moved will eventually pay off.

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