A Hijab Doesn't Automatically Make a Woman Into a Symbol


In the post 9/11 world, where everyone loves to fall back on a clash of the civilizations explanation for Why We Don’t Get Along with “The Muslim World,” one group of people tend to get a lot of attention in the midst of the cultural debate: veiled women. They have become the focal point of countless debates on Islam, from France’s ban on the veil full-face veiling to Femen’s protest against women who wear hijab, and have come to be the symbol of America’s understanding of the Muslim woman.

Veiled women are an easy target for cultural debate— their outward appearance is the manifestation of a lot of things that make secularized western cultures uncomfortable with Islam. Their veiling appears to be a direct form of oppression, and connotes perceptions of powerless women without a voice. The media coverage about women who wear the Muslim veil fall prey to the same, two-dimensional explanation of pious Muslim women. Common article titles about these women are usually some variation on “Behind the Veil” or “Taking a Look Behind the Veil.” Women who wear hijab are fascinating to the secular and western eye— it’s difficult for people to comprehend how a woman can not suppressed as a result of her headwear. And there’s always the underlying question: What is under there? If you’re in a Sex and the City movie, it’s fashion! Because that’s what burkas are all about (Side note: my host mother in Jordan sometimes wore a low-cut prom dress under her burkas. How scandalous). This pressing fascination with women who veil gives you a free pass to gawk and stare when you see them in malls or at the grocery store in the US.

But in the mythical World of Islam, the veiled woman is often painted with broad strokes too. Despite being majority Muslim countries, most of the Middle East has been under the thumb of political parties that suppress political Islam for the last three decades. In Turkey, the secular reforms put in place by the country’s first president and arguably the creator of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, become violently adhered to after a military coup in 1980. Despite the decline in women wearing headscarves in the decades before the coup, the reactionary secularism meant that women wearing headscarves were targeted as remnants of backwards society. They were banned from wearing them in public places and in schools, and there are accounts of women wearing wigs to take their final exams to circumvent the ban on hijabs in public universities. Even in a country with a Muslim majority, veiled women became the manifestation of all things Islamic, and therefore the symbol against which secularists rebelled.

The rise of current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’sparty, known as the AKP, is the result of a growing Islamic populist movement throughout Turkey. With relaxed rules on wearing the hijab, a random crowd of people in Turkey today will more than likely feature a decent minority of women wearing hijab. Erdoğan’s wife wears a hijab, and if you’re at all familiar with Turkey’s secular past, this is a big fucking deal. So now that the protests in Taksim Square are being slowly and forcibly dismantled, the focus on women who wear hijabs has returned. In hopes to rally support for himself and his Islamic-leaning party, Erdoğanmade a speech last Sunday explicitly pointing out his female voter base. He warned the crowd that the protesters at Gezi Park were a threat to “our sisters in headscarves,” harkening back to the days when women who wore hijabs had them snatched away in the street.

But just because a Turkish woman wears a headscarf doesn’t mean that she’s aligned with Erdoğan and his party. Neither does it mean she’s inherently opposed to the largely secular protests in Gezi Park.

Instead of being treated as ordinary members of society, veiled women in Turkey’s current political upheaval are used as political capital. They’re co-opted by both Erdoğan and secularists as easy “proof” that even, even, religious Turks support them. Rather than viewing veiled women as having nuanced political beliefs, the hijab is worn by only supporters of Islamization.

I met a girl in Cairo who wore a hijab, and as a whip-smart journalism grad student, she told me she was always curious about the night clubs in the trendy, more secular neighborhood of Zamalek. I asked her why she hadn’t gone yet, and she told me they would never let a woman wearing a headscarf into the club. This, in the same lifetime that a Muslim teenager in France shaved her head because she was banned from going to school wearing a headscarf. Both were treated as a symbol instead of a person, all because of some cloth on their heads.


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