A contentious debate continues

Monday marked the first day Turkish women were allowed to wear head scarves to university classes -- provided they tied them granny style.

By Catherine Price
Published February 26, 2008 4:17PM (EST)

A few weeks have passed since the Turkish government's decision to allow women to wear head scarves to universities. But this Monday was the first day of classes since the rule truly came into effect, and the Washington Post reports that some female students wasted no time in trying to wear head scarves to class. The article describes Sabiha Gimen, a student at Istanbul's Bilgi University, showing up at her school's gate with a head scarf tied under her chin. Gimen, who describes herself as both a Muslim and a feminist, said she was determined to wear a head scarf on Monday but, in an example of how a lightning rod issue can be reduced to very mundane details, was unsure of how to tie it.

This might not seem like a big issue, but in a nod to Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, the new rules only allow women to wear scarves tied in a bow under their chin; they can't wear scarves that completely cover their heads and necks. So on Monday morning Gimen considered several different ways to wear her scarf -- and after contemplating wearing it "granny style" (i.e., tied in a bow under her chin like a kerchief), she settled on letting its ends trail around her neck.

It doesn't seem as if this should be a big deal -- bow versus tails -- but the seriousness of Gimen's deliberation (and the fact that the guards at her university would still not let her inside until she covered the head scarf with a hat) demonstrates what a contentious issue this is -- along with what sway Ataturk still holds over many Turks. (Gimen was reluctant to answer the question of what Ataturk would say if he were standing at the university gate.) As Gimen donned her hat and proceeded into the campus, she's quoted as saying, in a halfhearted joke, "Here I am, cleansed of my identity." Meanwhile, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University told the Post that "the day 30 or 40 students come into class in head scarves is the day I go out." So the debate continues.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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