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In Turkey, Women Protest Headscarf Ban

Thursday, February 6, 2003

Observant Muslim women in Turkey are protesting a law barring them from wearing a headscarf in public schools. The controversial law is keeping female students from completing their education. Also: Macy's staff tells women not to breastfeed in store.

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Observant Muslim women in Turkey are protesting a law barring them from wearing a headscarf in public schools. The controversial law is keeping female students from completing their education. Also: Macy's staff tells women not to breastfeed in store.
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Gulden Sonmez

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Their days begin like those of most other girls their age. Every morning, they put on their uniforms and go to school. The difference comes when they reach the gate.

Others go in, maybe quicken their step so as not to be late to their first class. But these girls stop. Because they wear the Muslim headscarf, they aren't allowed to enter.

So they wait outside, some of them with books in hand, silently protesting their exclusion.

"It's cold now," says Beyzanur Tavukcuoglu, 16. "But we have to go." It's been 11 months since a line of riot police blocked these 30 or so girls--along with dozens of others--from entering their public Muslim high school.

In all, about 3,000 girls in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, have stopped going to school since the government began blocking covered girls from attending, according to Gulden Sonmez, vice president of the Istanbul branch of Mazlumder, a Turkish human rights organization focusing on religious freedom. And the ban has stood in the way of 30,000 college students across the country from continuing their education, Mazlumder says.


Religious Schools Are Latest Institution to Ban Headscarves

Religious secondary schools are the latest Turkish institution to deny entrance to women who wear the headscarf, a tradition that the fierce secularist establishment, made up of the military, judiciary and state-level bureaucrats, sees as a symbol of revolt and the first stumble on a slippery slope to political Islam.

Though roughly two-thirds of Turkish women are said to cover their heads, the scarf is banned in Parliament, government offices, universities and secondary schools. The devout are forced to choose between a government job and obeying Islam's edicts, between education and faith. In Iran, women may be fighting to bare their heads. Next door in Turkey, they are demanding they be allowed cover it.

"If you a member of an association, you have to obey its rules," says Havva Can, 16, a student who refuses to stop wearing her headscarf. "We are Muslim. We believe in Islam, so we have to obey."

Some women find the headscarf to be threatening. They fear the issue is being used by religious extremists to gather momentum for an Islamic state.

"In the long term, these 'individual liberties' could end up in a situation where women who don't want to wear the head scarf have to protest in the streets," says Ayse, 26, a graduate student who considers herself a devout Muslim and asked that her last name not be used. "These groups, the religious ones, they don't care about individual liberty, only about political power."

Until last year, about 900 girls and 400 boys attended the Kadikoy Imam Hatip Lisesi, a religious secondary school in a middle class neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Many had picked it because, unlike at a regular high school, it permitted headscarves. The school sold them as part of the uniform.

Turkish students.jpg

During the first semester, students had been told that the ban could be extended into religious high schools, but they say they were unprepared for what awaited them after the winter break: riot police admitting only those with uncovered heads.

For the next two weeks, the covered girls who tried to enter were bused to a distant neighborhood and left to find their way home--a method of police crowd control that prevents protesters from amassing a large group.

But the girls' families joined the protests, which continued through the semester and into the new year. "In October, 10 people chained themselves to the school gates," says Can. The next day, six members of the girls' families were detained and held for 27 days for organizing an illegal demonstration.

Nearly a year after the ban went into effect, about 300 girls from the Kadikoy school haven't returned. In Istanbul, 1,885 students and families have been arrested during the protests, says Sonmez.

Nonetheless, roughly 30 girls gather outside the heavy steel gates for two hours every morning, dressed in their uniforms: long plaid skirts, heavy black jackets and the scarves sold to them by the school.

The school's headmaster declined to speak to a reporter.

After the daily protest, the girls attend private courses. Parents pay about $1,000 a semester to educate 75 children, and the courses are taught by former teachers who lost their jobs when they refused to take off their headscarves.

"The diploma is not so important," says Memis Eksi, 43, a plasterer who accompanies his daughter Ayse, 16, to school every day, where she protests for two hours before attending the private classes. "The important thing is education."

The rub is that the education Ayse is getting is not comparable to that provided by the state.

"We learn English, math, Arabic, the Koran and the life of the prophet Mohammed," says Fatma Aladag, 18.

What other subjects would she be studying were she attending a government-supported school?

"Literature, geography, physics, chemistry," she says.


Recent Elections Give Former Islamists Two-Thirds Majority in Parliament

The protests have quieted since November's elections, when a party of former Islamists clinched a dominating victory in Parliament. During the campaign, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chairman of the Justice and Development Party, also known as the AK Party, sounded a theme of "human rights," which to conservative Muslims meant an end to restrictions on religion, including the ban on headscarves.

Many in the party leadership have wives who wear the scarf. Erdogan, for example, has sent both his daughters to study in the United States so they can continue to wear theirs.

But when, shortly after the elections, the new parliamentary speaker, Bulent Arinc, brought his wife wearing a headscarf to an official function, it caused an uproar in the secular establishment.

The issue could easily worsen the government's already uneasy relationship with the military, a powerful and pro-secular political force. And the AK party--which has had its hands full with an application to the European Union, a crumbling economy and a possible war in neighboring Iraq--has since downplayed it. The party spokesman, Murat Mercan, did not return phone calls for this article.

"It is now time for social solidarity," Erdogan told reporters shortly after the function. "We have great tasks to accomplish and there is no good in discussing such specific matters."

Those not able to continue their education have little patience, however. Hatice Kalitas, 27, was attending medical school when the headscarf ban went into effect in 1998. She persevered through threats, letters to her parents and suspensions, and by 2000, when the police stepped into her university, she was a month and a half away from finishing her degree.

"I want to work as a doctor," Kalitas says. "I feel that I am a doctor; one and half months is not important. So I study. I learn German. I want to finish my education with my headscarf in Germany. It's only in Turkey that you can't go to university with your headscarf."

Stephan Faris is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

For more information:

Mazlumder--Organization of Human Rights & Solidarity for Oppressed People:
http://www.mazlumder.org/english/text.html?sy=67&cst=report

Human Rights Watch--Combating Restrictions on the Headscarf:
http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/turkey2/Turk009-05.htm

U.S. State Dept.--Turkey:
http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/eur/8358.htm

For more information:

La Leche League International
Summary of Enacted Breastfeeding Legislation:New York:
http://www.lalecheleague.org/Law/Bills30.html

ProMoM Inc.--Promoting the awareness and acceptance of breastfeeding:
The 3 Minute Activist:
http://www.promom.org/3min/index.htm

Kate's List--The beginning of Lactivism:
http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~kolina/mainpage.html




Macy's Staff Tell Women Not to Breastfeed in Store, Complaint Says

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Two women were asked by Macy's staff to stop breastfeeding inside the company's Garden City, N.Y. store, according to a complaint filed last week with the New York State Attorney General's office.

Maria Paciullo, 34, and Shari Nocera, 28, attended a promotional event in November for mothers and their children sponsored by Lancome cosmetics when a salesperson informed each of them separately that store policy doesn't permit breastfeeding.

"They have places for that," Nocera says she was told while sitting on the floor next to a woman spoon-feeding her son baby food in an area sectioned off for the members of her mom's group that coordinated the event. The Lancome salesperson then confronted Paciullo, whose son was breastfeeding in a sling while she browsed cosmetics, stating that not only is breastfeeding against store policy, it is "completely inappropriate."

Paciullo, an attorney, complained to the store manager, Steve Charron, citing New York State Civil Rights Law section 79-e, which gives a mother the right to "breast feed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether or not the nipple of the mother's breast is covered during or incidental to the breast feeding." He said he would inform the employee that Macy's had no policy against breastfeeding and let her know he had done so in writing, Paciullo's complaint alleges.

Charron, who declined comment because Macy's legal department is now handling the matter, later sent Paciullo a letter stating, "From our viewpoint the only suggestion that we should have made should have been to direct you to more comfortable accommodations." Macy's legal department has yet to receive notice of the complaint, and therefore also declined comment.

Ronnie Taffet, Macy's vice president of public relations, did say, "Quite honestly, we have no right to have a policy on breastfeeding."

The Attorney General's office is deciding whether or not to move forward with the complaint, which could result in a $100 to $500 fine to Macy's or require the company to inform its employees in writing of New York State breastfeeding laws.

It's education, not a fine, that would satisfy Paciullo. "This culture is so distanced from breastfeeding," she says. "People think of bottle feeding as the norm."

-- Carol E. Lee.