The Head Scarf, Modern Turkey, and Me (2024)

I replied, in my simplistic Turkish, that to me this sounded like a threat: either cover your head or rape can happen. The driver protested in ornate phrases that nobody was threatening anyone, that to speak of threats in this situation was unfitting, that he could tell from my smiling face that I was a good and trusting person, but that the world was an imperfect place, that some men were less like humans than like animals, and that it was best to send clear signals about what one was or wasn’t looking for. Then he left me at the fish restaurant where I was going to meet some literature professors.

If it had been just the two of us in the taxi in a political vacuum, I wouldn’t have begrudged the driver his opinions. It was his car and his country, and he was driving me where I wanted to go. I knew that my limited Turkish, which felt like such a handicap, was in his eyes a marker of privilege—a sign that I could afford to travel and live abroad. Often, the second question drivers asked, after the invariable “Where are you from?,” was “How much did the plane ticket cost?”

But the cab wasn’t in a vacuum; it was in a country where the head of state, whose wife wore a head scarf, repeatedly urged all women to have at least three children, preferably four or five. Erdoğan opposed abortion, birth control, and Cesarean section. He said that Islam had set out a clear position for women, but that you couldn’t explain it to feminists, because they “don’t accept the concept of motherhood.” The longer he stayed in office, the more outspoken he became. In 2014, he went so far as to describe birth control as “treason” designed “to dry up our bloodline.” No matter how hard I tried to be tolerant—no matter how sympathetic I felt toward Muslim feminists who didn’t want to be “liberated” from the veil, and who felt just as judged by the secularist establishment as secular women felt by the Muslim patriarchy—I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.

In the fall of 2011, I travelled to southeastern Anatolia to report on a newly discovered Neolithic site that archeologists thought might have been the world’s first temple. The site, Göbekli Tepe, was near the city of Urfa, a Muslim holy destination, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham. (The town, near the Syrian border, is now one of the points through which foreign fighters pass in order to join ISIS.) I seemed to be the only unaccompanied woman at my hotel. When I told the clerk I was staying for six days, he almost had a heart attack. “Six days?” he repeated. “All by yourself?” When I asked about the hours of the steam bath, he said it was for men only—not just at that time of day but all the time. I took the elevator up to my room, filled with the depressing knowledge that there would be no alcohol in the minibar. All the time I was in Urfa, whenever I saw any member of the hotel staff in the halls or the lobby, I always received the same greeting: “Oh, you’re still here?”

“Your appointment’s been cancelled. You took too long filling out those forms.”

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I had a hard time finding a taxi to take me to the archeological site. In the end, the hotel receptionist called a driver he knew: a surly guy with no meter, who charged an exorbitant fifty-five dollars round trip, and sighed and muttered under his breath the whole way. He didn’t answer his phone when I called him to pick me up, and I ended up having to hitchhike. Thinking that life might be easier if I had my own car, I made an appointment for six the next evening at a Europcar location supposedly on Urfa’s 749 Street. I got so lost that, by seven, I was still wandering up and down a mysterious stretch of road that seemed to start out as 771 Street and then to become, without any visible change, 764 Street. I had walked several times past the same convenience store, catching the attention of a bread-delivery man.

“Are you looking for something?” the deliveryman asked. I showed him the address. He showed it to another guy. They debated for a long time whether there was or was not a 749 Street. A third guy came out of the store and joined in the conversation. I waited for a few minutes, but it was clear that they were never going to agree, and, anyway, the Europcar was already closed. I thanked them for their help and walked back to the city center to get something to eat.

Most of the restaurants in Urfa had a sign that said “family restaurant,” meaning there was one room that was for men only and one “family room,” where women were allowed. The one I chose had its family room on the roof. There were two or three families sitting up there, with children. The remaining tables were empty. I sat at a table for four people, in a corner. The families had a lot of requests, and I was unable to get the waiter’s attention. I had been sitting there for several minutes when I got a phone call from a friend in Istanbul. When I started talking, in English, two of the women at a nearby table turned and stared at me, openmouthed. I thought that maybe they thought I was being rude for talking on a cell phone.

“I’ll call you back,” I told my friend.

Even after I hung up, the women didn’t stop staring. I tried smiling and waving, but they neither waved back nor looked away. The waiter, who still hadn’t taken my order, was standing in a corner gazing up at a ceiling-mounted TV. I gave up and went back to my hotel room, where I ate tahini rolls while reading about the Neolithic Revolution.

The main tourist and religious sites in Urfa—an ancient castle, numerous mosques, a cave where Abraham may have been born and suckled by a deer for ten years, and a lake of sacred carp believed to mark the spot where Nimrod tried to burn Abraham alive (God turned the cinders into fish) are all in or around a shady green park, with fountains and rosebushes. I went there every day to escape the heat. Women had to wear head scarves at the holy sites, so I bought one at the market and always kept it in my bag. It was soft, gauzy, spring green, with a pattern of tiny intricate vines and leaves.

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned—it was a wonderful gift.

How long can I keep wearing it? I found myself thinking, as the bus lurched into motion and cars honked around us. The rest of the day? Forever?

I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner to try wearing a head scarf—why nobody ever told me it was something I could do. It wasn’t difficult, or expensive. Why should I not cover my head here, if it made the people who lived here feel so much better? Why should I cause needless discomfort to them and to myself? Out of principle? What principle? The principle that women were equal to men? To whom was I communicating that principle? With what degree of success? What if I thought I was communicating one thing but what people understood was something else—what if what they understood was that I disapproved of them and thought their way of life was backward? Did that still count as “communicating”?

I found myself thinking about high heels. High heels were painful, and, for me at least, expensive, because they made walking more difficult and I ended up taking more taxis. Yet there were many times when I wore heels to work-related events in New York, specifically because I felt it made people treat me with more consideration. Why, then, would I refuse to wear a head scarf, which brought a similar benefit of social acceptance, without the disadvantage of impeding my ability to stand or walk?

And yet, when I thought about leaving the scarf on for the rest of my stay, something about it felt dishonest, almost shameful, as if I were duping people into being kind to me. Those girls who smiled into my eyes—they thought I was like them. The guy who helped me on the bus—he thought I was his sister.

At that point, another thought came to me, a kind of fantasy, so foreign that I could barely articulate it even to myself: What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking. I had had an abortion the previous year, with some reluctance, and everything—every minor defeat, every sign of unfriendliness—still hurt a little extra. I had never felt so alone, and in a way that seemed suddenly to have been of my design, as if I had chosen this life without realizing it, years earlier, when I set out to become a writer. And now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? What was so great about being a journalist and going around being a pain in everyone’s ass, having people either be suspicious and mean to you or try to use you for their P.R. strategy? Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?

These thoughts recently came back to me when I read “Submission,” the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, a satire set in a 2022 France ruled by democratically elected Islamic moderates. The Islam in “Submission” is largely a fantasy designed, by Houellebecq, to appeal to someone just like Houellebecq, with lavishly funded universities, fantastic meze, freely flowing French and Lebanese wines, and multiple teen wives for every intellectual who converts to Islam. But the political rhetoric of the movement’s leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes, is well reasoned and coherent, bearing a certain resemblance to Erdoğan’s actual platform, and presented with a frankness and lucidity that made me understand the logic of the A.K.P. in a way I never had before.

Internationally, Ben Abbes seeks to transform Europe into a Mediterranean and North African union of Muslim states: a program similar to the “neo-Islamism” of Ahmet Davutoğlu, the A.K.P. prime minister. Domestically, Ben Abbes supports entrepreneurialism, family businesses, and the free market; socially, he seeks to bolster Muslim education and to encourage women to be stay-at-home mothers, while continuing to tout the supreme value of democratic rule. I had never understood how all these goals were related, or even compatible. How could someone who opposed feminism—who was O.K. with half the population being less educated than the other half—be in favor of democracy? How could a democratic constitution not be secular? How could it be compatible with any of the Abrahamic faiths, with anything that came out of that cave in Urfa? I had always assumed that Erdoğan was being insincere about something: either he was just pretending to care about democracy or he was just pretending to care about Muslim family values—or, as my relatives said, he was pretending both about democracy and Islam, and the only thing he really cared about was building more shopping malls with Gulf money.

The Head Scarf, Modern Turkey, and Me (2024)


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