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Head Scarf

The Head Scarf

A Means of Oppression or Liberation?

by Ghanima Gaditana

During my visits to Turkey, I observed women of various ages and classes, in different parts of the country and in the cities. Some wore head scarves (or esharp), some did not, regardless of weather or temperature. Because this is not a custom we commonly observe in American society, I found myself asking, “Why would a woman want to wear a scarf?”

I am very aware that I have personal perspectives based on my own experience which influence my “objectivity” regarding this issue. I wear headgear of any kind mostly as a purely practical matter, and occasionally for style or fashion. I very much enjoy my hair, and consider it a gift from the gods. I admit that I am proud of its beauty, and have no inclination to hide it. In order to examine this question, I found it necessary to step outside my usual point of view, and to use my own feminist consciousness, my personal experiences in the Turkish culture, and my reading and research about traditional and Muslim societies, in an attempt to see it from the Turkish woman’s point of view. I found that the question had many answers.

Alexandrian woman wearing headscarf (mandil). Shareen El Safy photo.

Every Woman in My Family Wears a Scarf

In many traditional cultures all over Europe and the Middle and Far East, nobody goes bare-headed, regardless of age or sex or religion or socioeconomic status. Proper dress includes something on the head, and tradition requires adherence to that social norm. In other words, wearing a scarf is as much a part of getting dressed as putting on a blouse, and leaving it off is equally unthinkable.

The Practicalities of Life

In the grimy world of rural life where there are extremes of heat and cold, a head scarf helps to protect from the weather, and keeps off the dirt. In village culture, water usually has to be carried in containers from a distant source, and bathing is costly in terms of the time and energy needed to get and heat the water, which may be scarce anyway. The scarf can be washed more easily than can the hair.

Rural Emigration

But what about the women who don’t live in villages and labor in the fields as agricultural workers? Some women in the cities wear scarves, too. As they move from the villages into the cities, the women participate in increasingly complex ways of life, respond to a greater variety of inputs and pressures, and have many more options. The answers to the scarf question become more multi-layered and complex; it becomes increasingly difficult to make generalizations with any certainty.

In recent decades in Turkey, there has been a mass migration from rural to urban areas, as the growing population and economic difficulties drive people to move in order to find paying work. Many of the women in the cities are recent arrivals from the countryside, and would be acutely uncomfortable without their scarves. They’ve worn them all their lives, and would feel naked without them. The young and adult daughters of these women may go bareheaded quite comfortably, since the style in urban areas is for women to do so. The mothers see that local style is different, and dress their daughters so they’ll fit in. These girls grow up without scarves, and are comfortable without them. Often I saw mature and elderly women wearing scarves, and little girls, teenagers, and young women walking beside them bareheaded.

But what about the teenagers and young women who wear scarves in the cities? Some of them are from conservative families, and are following their family traditions; others are making a political or religious statement.

Cultural/Religious Influences

The Muslim religious tradition, and the cultures associated with it, see the relations between the sexes very differently than does Western culture. My understanding of this viewpoint is that by tradition, a woman’s primary, even her only, proper function is to serve as wife and mother. Because reproduction is utterly central to the identity of a woman, a woman’s body is therefore intrinsically sexual. Women are perceived as having a very powerful sex drive, more so than men; they are viewed as lusty and sexually demanding, earthy and seductive. Sex is the power that women have over men, and at its best, is a critical ingredient in the glue that holds a marriage, and thus the family, together. It is the woman who awakens sexual longing in a man, who might otherwise be able to keep his mind clear and devoted to higher pursuits. Her sexual desire and need to reproduce are so strong, she must be kept under control at all times, hemmed in by physical barriers and societal constraints. The Islamic tradition of segregation of the sexes, and of seclusion of women, is based on this need to restrain and control women’s very powerful and dangerous sexuality. Men and women live and move in different worlds, and safety is thus maintained.

Middle Eastern social structure is based on the extended family, and depends in large part on keeping the family in good repair. Women’s chastity plays a critical part in that structure, because when women become sexually free there arise enormous challenges to the social structure at large, and to individual families (as we have seen in the West). Because women are regarded as less trustworthy and intellectually capable than men, they cannot be trusted to control themselves, so every possible precaution must be taken to protect them, and the rest of society, from their urges. Women’s bodies are a source of distraction and temptation to men, and must be concealed in order for traditional society to hold together.

Some of the scarf-wearing women are religious conservatives, and accept the above viewpoint completely. They marry young, stay at home and work hard to be good wives and mothers. They reject the path that Western cultures have taken, because sexual freedom for women, as they see it, leads inexorably to the dissolution of the family and social stability. With their scarves they are saying, “I agree with my imam (religious leader), and I want the world to know that I support the Islamic tradition that will bring our society back to the right path.”

A Means of Liberation

Some of the scarf-wearers, however, have other ideas, and want to do more than raise children and serve their husbands. Possessing intelligence and ambition, they want to use their minds and abilities in a broader arena. For them, it takes great courage to challenge their social and familial traditions, to go to school and have careers and well-paying jobs. The only way they can do this is to provide every assurance to their families and society that they are not going out into the world for sex, but only for intellectual and financial advancement.

Thus, they wear scarves and dress in long-sleeved, high-necked, loose-fitting, ankle-length garments as they attend their college courses, receive their education, and seek professional employment. They enter classrooms and offices previously filled exclusively with men. The presence of a woman who is not a family member inevitably makes everybody think about sex, since in traditional society, that is the only context in which a man and a woman (not related through family ties) may interact. It may be approved by society (as when a marriage occurs) or tacitly accepted (as when a man visits a prostitute); but in a sexually segregated society, men and women simply don’t meet except for sex, and everybody knows that.

The men who encounter women in classes or at work don’t know how not to think about sex whenever they see a woman (repression breeds obsession). The women, moving into a previously males-only environment, accept it as their responsibility to diffuse the sexual charge. Since everyone agrees that it is women who arouse sexual feelings in men, obviously it is therefore up to the women to be in charge of not evoking those feelings.

These women, by their modest dress, explicitly reject any offer to see them as sexual creatures, thus making it possible for them to have jobs and careers in arenas that only recently were forbidden to women of their religious tradition and social class. They are, in effect, making a pre-emptive strike on any man who might consider making a sexual advance, saying by what they wear, “Don’t even think about it! I am doing everything that can be done so that my physical presence does nothing to evoke sexual feelings in you. I cover my hair and body so that I may be seen as an intelligent, capable adult, not a sexual vessel. I insist you take me as I am, a person in my own right.”

For these women, the scarf is a means of liberation, not of oppression. The kind of feminism they practice is far more revolutionary that what many women in the West practice, because it is a much more profound change of attitude, status, and position.

I would passionately argue against the world view that requires a woman to unsex herself in order to be allowed to get an education and hold a good job. But there are lots of ways to be a feminist. That’s not my society, and I have to admit that our society here in the West hasn’t quite gotten it 100% right, either.

As Ghanima, Melissa Miller has been dancing for over twenty years. She studied ballet for seven years, and has also studied movement and analysis (Labanotation), modern dance, tap, and traditional hula. Her other major obsessions are Balkan dance (35 years), Balkan music (25 years) and Scandinavian dance (15 years). She has taught a weekly Oriental dance class for over twenty years in the San Jose area, and has taught workshops around the United States. Ghanima was a member of Jamila Salimpour’s legendary Bal Anat Ensemble in the 1970s. She performs at restaurants, nightclubs, and private parties throughout the San Francisco Bay area, as well as around the U.S. and overseas. She has made several research trips to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa, and leads tours to Turkey, focused on women’s spirituality: “On the Trail of the Great Goddess.” She holds a BA in Russian from the University of California at Berkeley and a California Standard Secondary Teaching Credential. She graduated from Santa Clara University in June, 1995, with a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology; she currently works as a psychotherapy intern at a community mental health clinic, as well as at the EMDR Research Institute at MRI in Palo Alto. www.ghanimag.com

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