Kurdish women ‘voluntarily’ wearing the hijab

Disenchanted with the west

Yassamine Mather gives her impressions of Turkey after 20 years of AKP rule and the evident failure of secularism from above

In the last 20 years Turkey has changed dramatically under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The country is far more Islamic, while the party in power is often described as national conservative, socially conservative and, according to some, ‘neo-Ottomanist’.

As with other social-conservative forces in the region, the party and the current president are pro-liberal market economy, and Erdoğan has accumulated considerable personal wealth while in power. There is clearly dissatisfaction with the AKP’s authoritarianism and censorship, not to mention corruption, especially amongst the urban youth, yet it managed to maintain a majority in the parliamentary elections of May 14.

I had not previously gone to Istanbul during the 20 years of AKP rule, but during a short visit last week I was shocked by the changes in social attitude and the rise of political Islam. In the 1980s and 1990s, in most major cities, very few women wore a headscarf. Nowadays, the reverse is true. The overwhelming majority of women, young and old, adhere to a very strict wearing of the hijab. This is not like Iran’s compulsory headscarf: in Turkey its ‘voluntary’ wearing is taken very seriously. Those wearing a head cover usually make sure not a single strand of hair or fringe is shown. They also wear more or less what can be described as modest (if not fully Islamic) clothes.

I use quotation marks around the word ‘voluntary’, because, of course, as the western press and the ‘international community’ keep telling us, in ‘democratic’ Islamic Turkey, unlike dictatorial Islamic Iran, the wearing of the hijab is thus considered. However, if that is the case, we have to question the limits of this concept. Without a comprehensive analysis of why young women, students, office staff, service-sector employees, etc, are so keen to adhere to wearing the hijab, it would be difficult to assess the situation theoretically. However, the question remains: how much freedom in terms of work, study and social engagement would these women have, should they decide to remove their hijab? What is the level of peer pressure, parental pressure? In other words, just how voluntary is voluntary? How does the choice of wearing the headscarf relate to freedom of movement, work, etc? Do some girls and young women find it easier to work, live and socialise if they cover their hair? And is this a compromise that suits everyone?

I am sure that a Shia fundamentalist travelling from Iran to Turkey would envy the fact that in major cities, women are far more covered than in the Islamic Republic. Yet the hijab is compulsory in Iran and ‘voluntary’ in Turkey. Amazingly, Turkish nationalism and even Ataturkism seem to coexist to a certain extent with the religious movement, while in the Islamic Republic factions of the Islamic Republican Party are at war with each other regarding precisely the issue of the compulsory hijab.

Since Erdoğan first became prime minister in 2002, the AKP has abolished regulations that banned veiled women from working, studying in state institutions and organisations. The AKP claims it respects secular lifestyles and there is no compulsion for women to wear a headscarf. However, in the last few years removing it, especially amongst young women, has been seen not only as a sign of ‘secularism’, but of political opposition to the governing party.


Only three to four decades ago, Turkish women faced a completely different situation. The state, mainly led by elite secular ‘republicans’, discouraged the wearing of headscarves even in traditional religious cities - as was depicted so eloquently by Orhan Pamuk, in the book Snow, which deals in part with the dilemma of young girls choosing between their headscarf (bringing honour) and the country. As S Prasannarajan describes in Open magazine, in Snow “there’s a staging of the play, My fatherland or my headscarf, in which a woman removes her headscarf and burns it”,1 startling both secular republicans and the local Islamists in the audience in what is described a religious town in central Anatolia. Prasannarajan goes on to provide this quote from the book:

When the angry girl tore the scarf off her head, she was not just making a statement about people, nor about national dress: she was talking about our souls, because the scarf, the fez, the turban and the headdress were all symbols of the reactionary darkness in our souls, from which we should liberate ourselves and run to join the modern nations of the west. Although few could make out her words, everyone heard one taunt back very clearly: “So why not take off everything and run to Europe stark naked?”

In Pamuk’s novel, young girls banned from various places for wearing the headscarf (remember, this is the pre-Erdoğan Islamic era) commit suicide en masse. As Margaret Atwood points out in reviewing the book,

Those not living in the shrunken remains of former empires may find it hard to imagine the mix of resentful entitlement (We ought to be powerful!), shame (What did we do wrong?), blame (Whose fault is it?) and anxiety about identity (Who are we really?) that takes up a great deal of headroom in such places, and thus in Snow.2

In neighbouring Iran this week, Mohammad Dehghan, vice-president for legal affairs, told reporters: “Without the hijab, the Islamic Republic would not have much of a meaning ... the hijab is the symbol of the Islamic Republic.” Once more he was making it clear that this is a central issue, when it comes to the survival of the current order.

I have emphasised the issue of the hijab because in both Iran and Turkey its significance goes far beyond debates about women’s attire or even women’s rights. Wearing it up to 1930s, followed by its banning and the disdain for those who kept it in the Pahlavi and Kemalist era, and then a return to it under two different types of Islamic government - reflect above all else the failure of ‘westernisation’ and ‘secularism from above’, as espoused by the pro-west middle classes trying to impose their ‘modernisation’ ideals on the rest of the country. It shows the complexity and the difficulties of finding a revolutionary way to confront political Islam and the long struggle ahead in the fight for secular, democratic governments in the region.

Blind eye

Given Iran’s opposition to most western positions and the fact that the current Turkish government has turned a blind eye to most US sanctions against Iran, you would have thought that Iran’s Islamic leaders would favour an Erdoğan victory in Turkey’s presidential elections. However, opinion in Tehran is divided and the majority of both conservative and ‘reformist’ politicians favour the victory of the opposition leader. Rivalry with Turkey in terms of who is more ‘Islamic’, Turkey’s support for anti-Assad fighters in Syria in the last 10 years, as well as for separatists in Iranian Azerbaijan, and Iran’s support for Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan Republic (not forgetting the promise of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Erdoğan’s opponent in the May 28 second round, to build a regional economic alliance with Iran) - all have played their part. Last week in Iran the daily Khorasan published a photo of Kılıçdaroğlu holding up a map which showed his planned route for the connection of Turkey to China through Iran, thanks to the new highways and rail lines he is promising will be constructed under his presidency.

As for the Iranian opposition, however, Kılıçdaroğlu’s anti-immigrant remarks and his promise to prohibit the sale of property to foreigners have angered those who are in forced exile or simply have chosen a better life in Turkey.

Meanwhile, there is no love lost between Syrian president Bashar el-Assad and Erdoğan, who were foes during the Syrian civil war. Assad accused Turkey of helping to finance his armed opponents. As a consequence of that civil war, Turkey now hosts a very large number of Syrian refugees. Of the 3.65 million refugees who currently live in Turkey, the vast majority are Syrian (Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians make up most of the others).

Although Erdoğan has secured huge sums from the European Union as part of a deal to secure the borders of ‘fortress Europe’, many Turks faced with spiralling inflation (currently standing at around 45%) and financial hardship blame refugees. So immigration issues have been a hot subject during the current elections and will remain key in the second round.

One local branch of Iran’s Republican Party recently invited the media to watch, as Syrians from their district boarded buses bound for Turkey’s southern border. Kılıkdaroğlu’s deputy, Onursal Adıgüzel, is quoted as stating: “… we are not saying in a racist way that we’re going to send people back. With the right policy and with healthy communication with Syria, we want to reconstruct the region again and send Syrians back step by step.”3

All this has gone down well in Damascus, where the Assad regime cannot hide its pleasure, while, for his part, Erdoğan has responded to the opposition’s election promises of returning Syrian refugees by trying to mend relations with Damascus, after a decade of conflict.

So in a very complicated situation, when it comes to a choice between Erdoğan and his opponent, Iran’s Islamic Republic and Assad’s Syria seem to be on the same side as western governments.

  1. openthemagazine.com/cover-stories/what-the-headscarf-reveals.↩︎

  2. www.nytimes.com/2004/08/15/books/headscarves-to-die-for.html.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/12/syrians-turkey-elections-uncertain-future-whether-erdogan-stays-or-goes.↩︎