Islamic Head Covering among Turkish Women in the U.S.: Creating International Spaces of Difference

By Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood | Western Folklore, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Islamic Head Covering among Turkish Women in the U.S.: Creating International Spaces of Difference


Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood, Western Folklore


Islamic head and body covering is often stereotyped in the West as an exotic cultural practice that, at best, represents patriarchal oppression, and, at worst, violent extremism. Having lived for several months in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with frequent visits to Turkey, I had been considering, even before the world-changing events of September 11, 2001, a project that would chip away at such stereotypes of Islam in the United States. That project has only grown more urgent in a post-9/11 world. So, in 2002, I returned to Turkey to undertake fieldwork among Muslim women who wear the headscarf and those who do not.1

My earliest motivation for fieldwork in Turkey-a secular nation whose majority population is Muslim-was personal curiosity: I was intrigued by the variety of women one can see in everyday life, and I wanted to know about their choices, their families, their religious beliefs, their folk traditions. Unlike Iran, its geographical neighbor, Turkey does not require women to cover their heads. On the contrary, when the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, strongly encouraged the population to embrace Western forms of dress, even establishing the "Hat Law" of 1925 that required men to take off the fez. At the same time, Atatürk strongly encouraged women to remove their veils, though he never came out firmly against it. Today, Turkey forbids covered women to enter government buildings and educational institutions.

On the streets of Turkey, I was especially struck by what appeared to be significant tolerance between women who cover and women who do not. I frequently saw a clearly secularist woman walking arm-in-arm with a woman wearing the Islamic headscarf. I saw older women wearing headscarves while shopping for the latest fashions with their stylish granddaughters. From my position as cultural outsider, I thought I was observing a great deal of tolerance for differences in religious and cultural expressions.

What I discovered in my fieldwork, however, was a great deal of anxiety, resting just below this surface level of tolerance. There can indeed be deep conflict between secularist women-particularly young, urban women who do not cover-and young Islamic women, who attempt to negotiate tradition with modernity while wearing the headscarf and long coat. One informant, who does not cover her head, told me that "the subject of headscarves for us is as sensitive as the subject of race is for you Americans."2 As I seek to understand how the personal intersects with the political in this emotionally charged issue, her comment continually reminds me of the necessary prudence that must shape my work, which ultimately is an ethnographic study that explores degrees of consent and resistance to the Islamic headscarf among Turkish women. Because Turkey is a moderate, secularized nation that was carved out of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, it is a useful site for exploring every-day traditions of Islam that exist within a western-style democracy. Their legal and cultural differences from other Muslim nations allow Turkish Muslims to serve as a constituency that advances our understanding of global Islam. Turkey's being a constitutional democracy particularly reveals how secular and religious freedoms do not always align.

Since returning to the US, I have interviewed Turkish women who have relocated to Louisiana (my home). This article focuses specifically on the experiences of five young, educated Turkish women currently living in Baton Rouge. All of these women told me that they have chosen to cover their heads of their own volition and that their choice is grounded not only in devotion to Allah but also in notions of democratic freedoms. My fieldwork with these women, who are differently positioned according to their personal histories and socio-political contexts, reveals ongoing struggles with divided loyalties-to the Turkish state, their religion, their families, and themselves. …

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