Sunday, December 4, 2011

A simple piece of cloth with a great impact

Everywhere I look in Istanbul, there are colorful heads bobbing in the crowd. Take for example, the food court at Torium Shopping Mall.

In a group of four young high school girls, two brunettes chat with their heads knocking with the other girls' bright green and purple scarf covered heads. There, two tables behind them sits a couple, the girl with a shiny blue scarf has her head bent close to her partner/husband/boy friend, both of them smiling happily. There are also older covered women, taking a break from shopping and people watching. Two young girls sit next to them, their heads open and their faces buries in their cell phones.

You would think "wonderful how in a country as politically motivated as Turkey, in real life covered and uncovered women get along fairly well."

You would be wrong.

Tomorrow I go job hunting and the first instruction from my Turkish husband happens to be "Style your hair nicely and wear some make up." This request may be normal for some people, but is unusual for me because I happen to wear a headscarf every day of the year.

Ironically, when I do happen to interview with my head scarf on, one of the frequently asked questions is "Does your husband make you wear your head scarf?"

I need to take a deep breath each time before answering this question. "No, my husband has no hand in my taking or not taking a scarf." Each time a person asks me this question, he or she falls a little lower in my eyes. I am left pondering the question instead in my mind "Who is more oppressed by the headscarf, I or this person who cannot see beyond a piece of cloth? Whose mind is imprisoned? Mine or this person's who feels the needs to confirm that I am not oppressed by a male in my family?”

In USA, I met amazing Turkish women who came to America to get higher education because universities in Turkey wouldn't let them wear a head scarf. These women went on to finish Masters and PhDs in fields like Chemistry, Engineering, Early Childhood Education etc.

The Turkish media may be partly to blame and the instances are all over the place. In each sit-com, soap, movie, news report; old women are wearing hijabs and younger women aren't. The one village woman has a scarf and the city girl has high lights in her hair. The stereotype is pushed and ingrained into the average Turkish mind. It's the new "Black", the “Turbanli” stereotype of Turkey.

In Istanbul as has been my experience, upon encountering a woman with a headscarf, people’s first intuition is to scowl and look away as if faced with something unpleasant or scary. For someone used to the American “Affirmative Action” regulations, it came as a shock to learn that in the Turkish job market, it is a requirement to include a photograph with one's resume. How many covered women are eliminated right away from the pool of job candidates because of this rule?

A general coordinator at a popular Language Institude shared with me that I will never see a covered woman at an administrative post anywhere in Istanbul. “There is just one covered woman in this building, the cleaning woman.”

Of course, a large majority of normally covered women do hold administrative positions by fulfilling the requirement that they remove the scarf. Don a black dress and let go of years of nurtured modesty. Feminists in Turkey yell "Headscarf doesn't liberate women." I'm wondering if forcing women against their wishes to do something that can make or break their career is actually liberation.

Without a doubt, there are families with patriarchal dynamics wherein the males of the household require the women to cover their heads; maybe even against the wishes of these women. How different are these modern Turks then, if they stick to their own “no-Turban” requirement especially when the women suffering from the regulations are those that did cover their heads on their own will?

It is not rocket science to understand, if a woman is trying to get inside a co-ed college or apply for a job where she will be working with men, it can only be because there are no men oppressing her. Any woman being oppressed by males in her family would NOT be protesting in the streets of Istanbul.

Today's covered Turkish woman is not oppressed by the head scarf...she is oppressed by the same people who think they are attempting to liberate her by making her take off her scarves.

Tomorrow, I too shall take off my head scarf when I go for a job interview. My companion, my niece will wait for me outside the company building.

She's not welcome inside. She has a scarf on.

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