Sunday, April 20, 2008

The head scarf problem

When it comes to issues related to the status of women in Muslim and particularly Middle Eastern countries, westerners tend to focus on the “hijab” or head scarf.
In western eyes the head scarf is seen as a symbol of oppression and second class citizenship. In some countries where it is mandatory, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is that. In others, like Jordan, Syria and Indonesia, it is a personnel choice of observant Muslim women. It has even become an issue in Western European countries. Countries such as France, Great Britain and the Netherlands have banned it in various forms in public institutions.
Turkey’s avowedly secular government has banned the wearing of “hijab” in public spaces such as government offices and universities. This long standing policy has not liberated women, but has resulted in Turkey ranking close to the bottom in measures of the status of women. Since Turkey is 99% Muslim and over 65% of women wear “hijab”, the ban has had the odd effect of discriminating against the majority.
Since the crackdown on wearing of head scarves following the last military coup, thousands of observant women have been unable to obtain jobs, practice their professions or study at the school of their choice. Lawyers cannot go to court with their clients, professors cannot teach and students must go abroad to attend college. This includes the daughters of the President and Prime Minister.
Ardent secularists, who see a fundamentalist behind every tree, defend the policy as necessary to prevent the formation of an Islamic government governed under Islamic Sharia law. The current AK led government has attempted to relax the head scarf ban. The secularists have responded by filing a court case seeking to overthrow and ban the democratically elected AK party. If this happens, Turkey, a US ally in the Middle East, will be in for some rough times, perhaps even civil war or a military coup. How can a little piece of cloth cause so much trouble? As an Iranian girl said to me, “We have much bigger issues to deal with than the head scarf”.

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