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
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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”