I am a Muslim. I wore a headscarf for nine years. And I am fed up with headscarves.
I’m fed up that every conversation about Muslim women begins and ends with headscarves. I’m fed up that secularists and Islamists alike are obsessed with headscarves. I’m fed up that the fights between the two sides always take place over women’s heads – literally and figuratively. Women rarely get a say in such arguments – just their hair and what’s on it is deemed more important.
Of course it was ridiculous to prohibit women from wearing headscarves on Turkish university campuses. How awful that women had to choose between an education and what they believed was a religious requirement. Many of those women would wear wigs on campus as an attempt at reconciliation.
The Muslim world has long chided Turkey for taking such a militant secular stand. And whenever France, the Netherlands, Germany or any other European country engaged in tortured – and time wasting, if you ask me – arguments about headscarves, again the Muslim world would yell, “Unfair!”
But where are those who yell at Iran and Saudi Arabia where women HAVE to wear headscarves? And I’ll take militant secular any day over militant misogynist, as Saudi Arabia exemplifies again and again. If Turkish women were barred from education because of headscarves, Saudi girls were dying from lack of them.
I lived in Saudi Arabia from age 15 – 21 and visited several times a year until 2000. A couple of years after I stopped visiting, a horrific fire broke out in a school in Mecca, home to the Muslim world’s holiest site. Fifteen girls burned to death because morality police standing outside the school wouldn’t let them out of the burning building. Why? Because they weren’t wearing headscarves and abayas, the black cloaks that girls and women must wear in public in Saudi Arabia.
In the face of such a horror, I’m actually heartened to see demonstrations against headscarves. But I wish they’d take place in Saudi Arabia and not Turkey.
I started to wear a headscarf when I was 16 because I believed it was required of me as a Muslim but I took it off nine years later because I stopped believing it was a requirement. I was a student at the American University in Cairo when I covered my hair. I can’t begin to imagine what I would’ve done had there been a ban in place that prohibited me from enrolling.
During those years on campus, I was in a minority. Most women students didn’t cover their hair. Now, the proportion tilts more in favor of those who do. So I realize I took off my headscarf at a time when more and more women were putting them on in Egypt.
At first, I wholeheartedly defended a woman’s choice to cover her hair, just as I did. I remember arguing with one of Egypt’s leading feminists because she claimed women who covered their hair were brainwashed.
My mother, a physician with a Ph.D., wears a headscarf. She’s certainly not brainwashed. My sister just graduated from my alma mater with a degree in English and comparative literature and she’s certainly not brainwashed. I proudly identified as a feminist when I wore my headscarf. If a woman could choose to wear a mini-skirt, I would argue, surely I could choose to wear a headscarf.
But over the past few years, every time I return to Egypt I’ve noticed more and more women are covering their hair. I am in the minority again – this time the minority that doesn’t cover their hair. And unfortunately I believe choice has gone out of the window. The growing conservatism in Egypt has expressed itself, once again, on the bodies of women.
That growing conservatism is a result of both the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist organization which holds 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament, but also – just as importantly – a growing use of conservative Islam by the Egyptian regime to outdo the Muslim Brotherhood in religiosity. In such a “my Islam is just as good as your Islam” arm-wrestling contest, women are always the first to be sacrificed. Their covered hair becomes the easiest way to say, “You see what a good Muslim country we are? All our women are covered!”
Where is choice in such a scenario? Put yourself in the shoes of a young woman in a neighborhood where she is the only one who doesn’t wear a headscarf. Everyone watches her every move. It’s easy to understand her saying, “OK, OK, I’ll cover my hair. Get off my back,” and just like that she’s left alone because she starts to cover her hair.
But there is little comfort in such surface “devotion”. Surely we should prefer the deeper kind, which emphasizes kindness and justice and compassion?
I offer my experience as an Egyptian Muslim woman because I cannot speak for Turkey or for Turkish women. I became a feminist in Saudi Arabia when I saw that the Islam I practiced at home was so different from the Islam outside of my home, especially when it came to women.
And I became a liberal, secular Muslim when I lived in Israel, where I learned from my Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem that the ultra conservative are the same everywhere, especially when it came to women. My Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women neighbors wore wigs just like the Turkish women who wanted to go to university during the days of the ban on headscarves.
The one consolation I gain from what’s happening in Turkey is that I believe that the ruling AK Party has gone beyond Islamism. They have passed what I call my three litmus tests for Islamists – women, the West and Israel. Despite the fears of the secularists, the AK Party has worked with women’s groups to amend the Turkish Constitution in ways that favor women – more so than previous secular governments. Those amendments were implemented because Turkey wants to join the European Union and the AK Party is just as keen as its predecessors to join that club. So they pass the litmus test of the West. And finally, when it comes to Israel, Muslim Turkey has long been a good friend to Jewish Israel and the AK Party looks set to maintain that friendship.
Let’s get over this headscarf obsession and move on to women’s issues that need more attention. In Turkey, they include virginity tests, so-called honor killings that target girls or women deemed to have shamed the family, as well as the nuts and bolts of problems for women everywhere – poverty, access to education and access to positions of power.
Forget hair, please! Stop fighting over women’s bodies. See the whole woman instead.
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