Turkish Women Keep Close Eye on Secular Tensions

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Protesters gather under a flag in Istanbul. i

Women were the organizers and made up the majority of the participants in a recent secularist street demonstration in Istanbul. It was attended by nearly a million protesters. Kerim Okten/epa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Kerim Okten/epa/Corbis
Protesters gather under a flag in Istanbul.

Women were the organizers and made up the majority of the participants in a recent secularist street demonstration in Istanbul. It was attended by nearly a million protesters.

Kerim Okten/epa/Corbis
Covered and uncovered women walk together in Istanbul. i

Covered and uncovered women walk together in Istanbul. Women's fashion in this mostly Muslim city ranges from the all-concealing long black hajab, to tank tops and miniskirts. Gokce Saracoglu hide caption

itoggle caption Gokce Saracoglu
Covered and uncovered women walk together in Istanbul.

Covered and uncovered women walk together in Istanbul. Women's fashion in this mostly Muslim city ranges from the all-concealing long black hajab, to tank tops and miniskirts.

Gokce Saracoglu
Models walk the runway at an Islamic women's fashion show. i

Despite the ban on headscarves, many young Turkish women continue to embrace Islamic dress, as was apparent at a recent Islamic women's fashion show in Istanbul. Gokce Saracoglu hide caption

itoggle caption Gokce Saracoglu
Models walk the runway at an Islamic women's fashion show.

Despite the ban on headscarves, many young Turkish women continue to embrace Islamic dress, as was apparent at a recent Islamic women's fashion show in Istanbul.

Gokce Saracoglu

The crisis this week over the election of a new president of Turkey highlighted the confrontation between secularist and Islamist politicians. It's a confrontation that is being closely monitored by Turkish women.

Some women feel they have the most to lose if Islamist politicians get too much power in government. But other, more pious Turkish women say the secular state discriminates against them.

The rise of Islamist politicians appears to have frightened many urban middle-class Turkish women. Women were the organizers and made up the majority of the participants in a recent secularist street demonstration in Istanbul. It was attended by nearly a million protesters, who chanted slogans like "Turkey is secular and it will remain secular" and "no mullahs in the presidential palace."

"As women, we don't want Shariah [Islamic law]," says 23-year-old Seyma Simsek, a clerk at Garage, a women's clothing shop that sells jeans, tank tops and miniskirts on a hip Istanbul street.

"People should have the freedom to wear a bikini if they want, or cover themselves up and pray," she says. "No one should take away these freedoms."

Professor Nur Serter was one of the rally organizers. She is the leader of an organization devoted to the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic and the general who began the emancipation of Turkish women in 1925.

"Women know very well that they will lose what they have been bestowed by Ataturk if an Islamic party continues to rule the country," Serter says.

Serter claims that Islam discriminates against women.

"You can see many examples when you look at Islamic countries, when you look at Iran, or Afghanistan, as you see there, you cannot say that women have any power or [are] even represented in society," she says.

Serter distrusts Turkey's moderate Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She points out that Erdogan's wife Emine wears an Islamic headscarf, which Serter calls a symbol of oppression.

"Why? I have the same hair as men do," Serter says. "Why is showing my hair a sin?"

In Turkey, women are prohibited from wearing headscarves at universities and in government offices. Many conservative Turkish women call this a restriction of their religious freedoms.

"It is an individual choice to wear a headscarf," says Nazli Ilicak, who does not wear an Islamic headscarf herself. Ilicak is a former member of an Islamist political party that was banned in the 1990s after a Turkish military intervention.

She says many young women are denied access to higher education because they refuse to compromise on their religious beliefs.

Hava Ozjelik is one of the many women who wears a headscarf and a long, concealing coat while shopping in the market of a working-class Istanbul neighborhood. She is also a proud supporter of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"I have religious beliefs and this is a Muslim country," Ozjelik says. "I'm not covering my head just because Recep Tayyip is a Muslim; I'm covering my head because I believe in living this way."

Despite the ban on headscarves, many young Turkish women continue to embrace Islamic dress, as was apparent at a recent Islamic women's fashion show in Istanbul.

Cameras flashed as models strutted down the catwalk, dressed in head scarves and long flowing coats and dresses that covered everything but their hands, faces and feet. Many of the fabrics displayed were brightly colored and embroidered with sequins as were the clothes of the young women sitting in the audience.

Emine Ertuk came to the show dressed in a pink pastel head scarf, long skirt, and jeans jacket.

"I don't wear pants," she says. "I try to dress up in an Islamic style, which does not reveal my body."

Ertuk is a supporter of Erdogan, who has lobbied for easing the headscarf ban. She is also an admirer of the prime minister's wife.

"She dresses beautifully, but just because she wears a headscarf, she isn't wanted in certain places," Ertuk says. "Why is it that if you show your hair you can go anywhere, but if you cover up, you can't?"

That's a question that has divided Turkish society for years. It's likely to be the subject of more heated debate as the country prepares for general elections this summer.

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