shafak1_ROLF VENNENBERNDAFPGetty Images_women in headscarves Rolf Vennenbernd/AFP/Getty Images

Confused by the Veil

To commemorate its founding 25 years ago, PS is republishing a selection of commentaries written since 1994. In this commentary from 2007, Elif Shafak explains that the headscarf is far from a telltale sign of religious conservatism or fundamentalism, and it is worn by a diverse array of women for vastly different cultural, political, or personal reasons.

ISTANBUL – On July 23, millions of Turks will wake up in a new, post-election Turkey. What will happen is hard to foresee. Turkish politics is full of surprises that only foreigners find surprising. Today, and this seems to surprise most people outside Turkey, it is women, not men, who are at the heart of political debate. Indeed, in these elections, the number of women candidates from all parties has visibly increased and so has female political activism overall.

This election is taking place because when the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), designated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gülas its candidate for president, the country’s secular elite cringed. Gül was not the issue; the issue was his wife. Had Gül been chosen as president, Turkey would have had its first headscarf-wearing First Lady.

Gül’s wife’s headscarf was interpreted as the symbol of darker changes to come. If the First Lady wears a headscarf, maintained the secular-minded elite, the whole secular system could be undermined. What followed was unprecedented political turbulence, including mass demonstrations on a scale never seen before. There was feverish talk of a possible military takeover, and the army again proved itself to be a seminal political actor.

25 years of the World's Opinion Page

Project Syndicate celebrates its 25th anniversary with PS 25, a collection of our hardest-hitting commentaries so far.

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