“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”-- Audre Lorde
Last May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, who was accompanying her husband on his official visit to the United States, visited Washington’s Georgetown University and participated in a meeting titled “The Role of Businesswomen in Peacebuilding and Development.” She made a speech, and to emphasize the meaning of women’s empowerment, she said: “No one can solve women’s problems but women themselves.” I totally agree with her inspiring comment.
When I was growing up years ago, even though we had very successful female professionals, women weren’t seen in public life as much as men. They were very busy turning their apartments into homes, very social at women-only gatherings, the so-called money/golden day, or “women matinees.” Since we didn’t see women in public life very often, it was even harder to see women wearing headscarves in public at that time. However, many things have been changing in the last decade. Now, we see covered women everywhere. It’s common to see them at chic restaurants, in mosques for collective prayer or at a beach with their special swimsuits. Times change and so does Turkey.
Since the Gezi protests started, we have witnessed iconic images of women. The photo of a young lady in a red dress being pepper-sprayed in the face by police has become a phenomenon. We have seen many women expressing themselves at protests by dancing, singing, walking, talking, even doing yoga. One night when the governor of İstanbul called on protesters’ mothers to take care of their kids and call them back home, we witnessed many mothers on the streets hand-in-hand with their children to support their efforts. However, these women were the voice of one lifestyle in Turkey. We haven’t seen many women in headscarves at these protests. Even though some of them criticize Erdoğan’s rough attitude, most remained silent not because they support the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and Erdoğan but because they felt unwelcome and that their choice of lifestyle was humiliated by the Gezi Protests.
In the very first days of Gezi, we could see some women wearing headscarves. Yet in a few days we had heard very upsetting stories about attacks and insults directed at covered women. I personally saw that many covered women who first supported the Gezi protests, when they became an open target of angry and violent crowds just because they chose to wear pious clothes, felt a threat to their lifestyle and remained quiet or picked the other side, fearing they would lose their democratic right to wear what they want.
Unfortunately, Gezi protesters couldn’t keep up the apolitical, embracing civil mood; they couldn’t keep being the voice of everyone and left religious people out. Their valid ideas have become Kemalist political slogans. With this attitude, our discussions were reframed: from democratic versus antidemocratic to laic versus religious, and headscarved women have become the victim because, seen as anti-modern or anti-laic, they have become vulnerable in public and a general target for attackers.
Actually, in the last 10 years we have seen an evolving and mostly successful experiment with democracy and Islam. Turks have become more and more comfortable with their religious and cultural identity. Nowadays, seeing headscarves more often in public life is the result of that positive progress, but there are still struggles in public areas and workplaces for women who choose to wear a headscarf.
The point to which we have got at the end of a month of struggle today, again, is that Turkey needs to compromise in a pluralistic, secular democracy and respect diverse lifestyles. We should acknowledge that banning headscarves is as undemocratic as requiring headscarves. They are equally wrong. We don’t need discrimination and we don’t need Islamization. All we need is democracy and respect for personal lifestyle choices. While Gezi protesters and supporters blame Erdoğan for using religion in politics and his political power to divide people, they end up making the same mistake when they treat covered women as “the other.”
Yes, no one can solve women’s problems but women themselves. But since the headscarf is a symbol of religious values, it isn’t only a women’s problem. Still, to have a stronger voice, women should support each other. Nowadays, the whole world is watching and tweeting a new chapter in Turkey’s journey deeper into democracy. Also, our mutual aim is moving Turkey forward. An old Turkish proverb says, “He who rocks the cradle can rock the world.” So why would we divide women by their choice of appearance? Instead, we can unite in diversity to shout out “we women rock!”