Lifting the veil in Turkey

Turkey's prime minister Recep Erdogan announced this week that the headscarf ban will be partially lifted.

Muslim women in Turkey have been given the right to wear a headscarf in religious schools and in religious classes at regular schools from next year, prime minister Recep Erdogan announced on Tuesday. Erdogan said the partial lifting of the ban came following public demand and to allow “everyone to dress their child as they wish, according to their means”.

The ban on headscarves in public places and in educational institutions in Turkey has always been a contentious issue ever since came into force following the military coup in the 1980s and was part of an attempt to take religion out of the public sphere. It has and still does restrict many Muslim women who give up academia as a result.

Since the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923 following the (Islamic) Ottoman empire’s decline, and the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been a country in which religion has no place in public environments. For Ataturk and many individuals like himself - men with qualifications and admiration for the West - religion had no place in the public sphere and strongly believed in the French view of the church and state separation. Religion was a private matter and should remain so.

Today the belief is still prevalent in Turkey that secularism means progress and that religion is oppressive and limits progression. The failure of the Ottoman empire is believed to have roots in religion; wrongly defending the faith in wars in the early 1900s.

The news follows the lifting of the ban in universities in 2010, but it is still in place for women working in the public sector. Although only girls in religious schools and during Koran lessons in regular schools can now do so, I’m still proud of the government’s decision, even if I don’t always agree with their policies.

In Turkey, no matter where you are, you will always be able to hear the call to prayer or see a mosque when you walk for a few minutes. It is a secular country but one with a majority of Muslim residents and history steeped in Islam, but it is always puzzling to consider why a country which prides itself on being more liberal than its Arab/Middle Eastern counterparts and subscribes to Western ideals doesn’t allow an individual to make a personal choice about what they wear.

Since the age of 14, I’ve been aware of the ban, particularly so during the period when I wore a headscarf (from the ages of 14 to 16) and went to Turkey. I found it odd to walk into my cousins’ school and be forced to take my headscarf off for a brief visit. It wasn’t because of the physical removal of the scarf that I felt awkward, it was the fact that I believed it was up to me whether to wear it- I chose to do so for personal reasons. (Disclosure: my mother doesn’t wear one.)

Critics have said the move is “enabling us to see the intense degree to which the education system is being made religious”, according to Egitim-sen education sector union, but that is an exaggeration. Although the prime minister, Recep Erdogan does appear to be more Islamic than some of his recent predecessors, not every decision he makes is wrong because he has a wife who wears a headscarf.

The assumption is that Erdogan made this decision for Islamic reasons- which is a possibility after his remarks earlier this year about a “religious youth”- but it can still be seen as a move in the right direction for greater religious freedom. Wearing a headscarf should be a right for female students, not an object which forces the individual to choose between education and faith.

 

Turkish women protest against the court's decision in June 2008 that annulled a law allowing women to wear Islamic headscarves at universities. Photograph: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".