Who wears headscarves

One of the great things to see in Turkey is groups of women enjoying each others company, some with headscarves and some without. It is evidence of the possibility and success of a pluralist Muslim country, and some evidence that women who wear hijab are exercising individual choice to do so. Though of course where choice stops and social pressure starts remains an open question.

With such diversity on show we started to wonder about which women in Turkey cover their heads. Our anecdotal experience would say the further East and North you live, the more rural your home and the lower your socioeconomic status, the more likely you are to cover your head. Istanbul observations play out as a microcosm of this. It is a city that straddles two continents and, generally, the more European looking the neighbourhood, the more female heads of hair you will see on show.

I went in search of more reliable demographic data. There wasn’t much I could find. But I did chance upon a study about attitudes towards bans on headscarves in government institutions. It found, for example, that lower socioeconomic groups are more comfortable with headscarves worn by public figures like the President’s wife. It’s not a big stretch to imagine those attitudes extend to who actually wears hijab too, so our observations are probably correct.

That study forms part of a big literature about Turkey’s ‘headscarf controversy‘. Said controversy isn’t, thankfully, about whether women should be required to wear headscarves, but whether they should be allowed to in civic institutions like universities, or when carrying out government jobs. The idea that government should be headscarf free is built on Ataturk’s vision of a modern, secular republic, with a clear division between church and state. A ban has been in place since the 1960s, but it has been patchily enforced. An effort to lift the ban for women studying in universities was passed in 2008, then overturned by the courts.

There’s an argument, eloquently made by The Economist, that says the fact the legal status of hijab is so fiercely debated, and that policies on it change is both a good thing, and more proof of a fundamentally stable Muslim democracy. The status of Islam in political life is just another cleavage that has been incorporated into that democracy, like gay rights, or fiscal conservatism elsewhere. Policy changes are made within the democratic framework, rather than because of a coup or religious revolution (ahem, Iran). This is good stuff. Things are titling towards Islam, at the moment, with Cabinet Ministers tweeting Koran verses, and moves to increase internet censorship. But it seems likely the median voter might swing things back the other way soon enough.

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