Mine is a story that I never thought I’d share until yesterday. For those who might get bored, this will be a long one. Since I’m the subject of the matter, I think I should introduce myself: I’m a 36-year-old, educated, and working woman. And a considerable amount of my life passed dealing with highs and lows until I found myself.
I grew up in a rural area where the country mentality is felt tangibly. My mother is a conservative woman who candidly practices her religion. My father is an extremely nationalist man whose devotion to faith consists only of the Friday prayers*. My relatives consist of imams, mullahs, and hodjas in Quran schools**, and those who verge on cults, hajis***, and the list goes on.
Amidst such an environment, naturally, I would have to cover my hair. After elementary school, I was enrolled in an Imam Hatip school****. As expected, no one asked a kid at my age, what my beliefs and preferences were. I was made to wear a headscarf at about this age. I remember feeling a bit weird but also feeling a sense of safety at the time. I, of course, realized later on that this safety was the result of women around me insinuating the idea that men were the predators of our chastity.
As time passed, I was being engulfed by this cocoon of safety, and I didn’t even realize it for a long while. In the high school of the Imam Hatip, I started to see symptoms of the conflict between my identity and chrysalis.
For example, some of the girls were fans of Eşref Ziya, a hymn singer poster boy who was loved by many conservative girls at the time. I, however, was listening to rock music and had just discovered rock musician Yavuz Çetin. At the time, this was seen as peculiar. The principle would scold me for drawing tribal patterns and skulls on my below-knee length skirt. I had a talent for drawing, and often I would do sketches during classes, and sometimes nude drawings. Arabic lessons would always be boring, and my friends would ask me to draw erotic scenes. One of their favorites was a man and a woman having sex in the shower. Now I often ponder how far away I am now, both physically and mentally, from that environment.
Readers from religious backgrounds might get mad at this. Still, we dreamed of everything schoolgirls of our age wanted to feel and experience. We had long discussions about things like “what would alcohol taste like” or “is it a sin to listen to music.” Each week we would be given parts of the Quran called juz to read the whole of the Quran. At first, I was reading them, but then I stopped caring. I would lie, saying that I had read it. One day during a conversation between our friends, I confessed to not reading them, and a few others joined in, telling they also haven’t been reading. This was a moment of relief for us.
Those who don’t come from conservative families wouldn’t understand, but for these people, Islam is more than just belief. It is a way of shaping one’s lifestyle, designing the person from their childhood, and finally shaping them into a constricted little box of what is deemed appropriate by society. Thus women are the most oppressed and brainwashed from these practices. This is because they are the ones who will become mothers and raise their children with this mentality. If women are reformed, society will be changed.
Islamic lifestyle has its own caste system, I’m talking about a moral caste system. For example, hodjas and pilgrims think they are living the Islamic lifestyle to its fullest, looking down on others for not living a life whole of Islam. It is just like the hierarchy of metal listeners: if your metal isn’t heavy enough, you’re not good enough. People with lifestyles that verge on radicalism are seen as strong-willed and are respected deeply. Hodjas, who refuse to go inside a house with television, is always held above others.
These things are even worse for women. For example, if you are wearing something shorter than the Islamic overcoat called “kap,” you will be at the very least criticized harshly by those wearing proper Islamic overcoats. Even people who wear overcoats aren’t free from criticism, because they will be looked down on by those who wear burqas, for not having their level of devotion. Then again, even amidst women with burqas, there can be a contest. If you wear a burqa of any other color, you can be condemned by women who wear only black burqas.
If you try to criticize this nonsense, you will definitely be labeled as blasphemous. Even cults are always in a contest about faith, religious duty, way of communicating with Allah. “Ours is the best,” they would say, “this hodja is sanctioned by that, our mullah comes from the lineage of the Prophet’s cousin,” and there’s a constant race about such topics between them. In these parts of the world, Islam is less of a belief and more of a governing system. It even has its own laws. If someone isn’t Muslim, or not believed to be living a proper Muslim life, there are ways to reach them, starting from “kind” warnings up to psychological repression. It’s not good enough to be very religious parents; if your children aren’t Muslim, your chances of going to Heaven will be diminished. You will continuously need to indoctrinate them, try to pressure them in the ways of your religious sect. Be careful! All escape routes, all chances of “The person you are trying to reach is unavailable at this time,” have already been taken care of. Isn’t it brilliant?
If you ask me, inside such a vast web that sticks to your legs and engulfs you, it’s a miracle that women even question their situation and try to find themselves.
The time when I started to question myself corresponds to my school years. I can’t forget my own breaking point. Our Quran teacher, a 60-year-old man, took one of his 15-year-old students as his second wife. We were horrified. I remember observing the responses in school and in the village. The standard response was: he took her, but at least there was a marriage. I started to realize I was living in colossal hypocrisy—a massive disappointment. I wasn’t very religious to begin with, and now I had given up on it altogether.
It was the year when I had trouble enrolling in a university because of the grading system. I was still covering my hair, and this act was a way of rebelling against injustice and discrimination*****. Whatever it means a clenched fist to a leftist, or chaining themselves to an activist, that’s what my covered hair meant to me—a way of reacting, a response to the existing conjuncture; totally independent of religion. Although the little crumb of belief inside me had almost disappeared, the fabric on my head meant something else.
Whatever the reason for covering one’s hair means that a woman who covers has to live her life in a completely different way. Something perfectly ordinary for an average person becomes trouble, a ceremony in and on itself. Having to cover their hair just to go grocery shopping, trying to cover their head when the doorbell rings, swimming in the sea (or not being able to), not getting enough sunlight, being suffocated by the heat, the cap under the veil pressing on your temples throughout the day. It is even worse for someone going through their menopause. Hot flashes, walls closing down on you, sweating bullets, and your head and neck arms are tightly covered. You can’t imagine how many menopausal women finish their errands in a hurry and throw themselves inside.
Now let’s talk about the critical part. I decided to uncover my hair as a result of a chain of stages. First, I met my true self for the first time, then acknowledged that person, realizing the thought of giving up on the headscarf, initially rejecting that thought, and finally embracing it.
The thought of “Am I sinning, am I doing something wrong?” that was injected into every single cell of my body ever since my childhood, clung to me and didn’t let me go for a long time. But after my embracing stage, I realized something. I was inside a bubble not only deemed a great sin in Islam but also felt very wrong and oppressive to my conscience: hypocrisy. I was living a two-faced life full of contradictions. My appearance didn’t match my inner self, my inner self was betraying my appearance. They had to face each other and become one if I were to be whole.
I opened up to my mother about my thoughts on this hypocrisy, and the excruciation it put me through. She told me she was expecting it already. I was shocked. (Sometimes mothers know you better than you know yourself.) Obviously, she was saddened, thoughtful, shaken. Thankfully she had discretion, and she appropriately talked to my father. He had to accept it over time. I didn’t uncover my hair all of a sudden, I had to transition there too. I’m not talking about a revolution that happens overnight, I’m talking about an evolution that takes months.
First, remove the cap, then the half-hijab, then a hat, and finally hair. If I hadn’t graduated university, had my future prepared, if I was still a “stay-at-home daughter” who lived in her father’s house, I would still be at square one. The most essential thing in this process is education and having economic independence. Sometimes when I go back to my old town, I still catch the glimmer of disapproval in people’s eyes, though I don’t pay them any mind. However, I know that if I was still living there as an unemployed woman, they wouldn’t stop at glares and come down on me like an iron fist. I’m sure of it.
The thing is, this mentality defeats even educated and employed women. My cousin is also an educated and employed woman, she was also covering her hair and then uncovered it. However, even she covers her hair when she visits our hometown. One day she had told me: “You succeeded and I didn’t, look at me! Doing this here, and something else at home”. Imagine the pressure we are under. I know how hard it is to overcome it.
My humble advice to my sisters, who are also considering to uncover themselves, living in hypocrisy will wear you out. Get yourself educated, and find a job as soon as possible. You will doubt yourself for a while, it is expected. You were in the chrysalis for a long time, it will take time to get used to the outside world. Going swimming whenever you wish, sitting in a pub for hours, whether you are drinking or not, wearing nice jeans, straightening your hair at the salon and walking out without having to cover it, wearing dark nail polishes, going to the gym and exercising without sweating rivers down your head, wearing whatever wedding dress you want if you are getting married; all this will feel strange for a while. You will wake up sweating, for example, from a nightmare where you are running up and down the street with your head exposed, looking for a headscarf. Even if you have been living uncovered, you will still see yourself covered in your dreams for a while. Your subconsciousness will be living independently in time before your turning point for a while.
These things should not turn you away from the transition that feels good and right. You may not be able to shake off the feeling that you have been separated from a group, the sense of not being part of it anymore. However, the road to being an independent individual starts from leaving a group you have not felt right in. After that, eventually, you will be part of another group anyway, the group of people who are fighting for their individuality, just like you. Know that you aren’t alone in this fight. Take advantage of the rights given to you by democracy and the freedom to choose the life you want to live. You are not alone. May you bask your beautiful hair in the sunlight. May your fight be eternal.
- In Islam, Friday is the holy day where men go to mosques to pray
- Hodjas are masters in Islam whose primary duty is to teach the religion, similar to priests
- Hajis are pilgrims in Islam
- Imam Hatip schools are educational institutes in Turkey where people are trained for religious professions such as imams.
- Wearing a headscarf in military institutions and schools, including universities, was banned in Turkey since the early 1980s. Additionally, it was banned for employees who works in government owned instutitions to wear headscarves. This ban is gradually removed after 2007.
(Image: Bar Bahr/In Between)