by Faten Hijazi
Growing up in California, my American identity has been constantly challenged. Strangers tell me to “go home” and call me oppressed, backwards, or uneducated. I have been spat upon, yelled at, and chased off the road. Why? Because I look different. I am a practicing American Muslim woman who chooses to wear a headscarf.
In the U.S., my cultural and religious beliefs are often frowned upon. I work as a lead design engineer and am currently working toward my MBA. Aside from a small piece of fabric used to cover my hair, I look like everyone else. Yet that small piece of fabric somehow transforms into a symbol of convoluted political and cultural statements that I never signed up for.
I often wondered what life would be like if I lived in a predominantly Muslim country. In 2010 I traveled with 23 other students to Turkey as part of an MBA global studies program. The objective was to explore Turkey’s booming economy and the program included visits to businesses and government offices.
Turkey is a democratic, secular republic whose population is 99.8 percent Muslim. I expected my choice to practice my faith and cover my hair would not only be tolerated in Turkey, but honored and dignified. To my dismay, the lack of cultural and religious tolerance in Turkey was more pronounced than in the U.S.
Turkey’s Constitution includes an official policy banning women who cover their hair from attending educational institutions or working in the public sector. The ban applies to teachers, lawyers, parliamentarians, and others working in government buildings. It also impacts students attending elementary school, high school, and university.
In a country where over 40 percent of urban women wear a headscarf, I did not see a single professional woman wearing it. In two of the companies I visited - a bank and a manufacturing plant - I was shocked to find that their policies ban female employees from wearing a headscarf or “other religious symbols.”
Several of our site visits were rather awkward. Outside a major conglomerate, a guard tried to stop me from entering the building not realizing I was part of the MBA group. I was given a “tisk tisk” when I asked an employee if I could use a conference room for a few minutes to perform one of my five daily prayers, something I routinely do in corporate America.
I asked a number of women wearing the headscarf to share their experiences with me. One Turkish woman had received her degree in pharmacology from Ankara University before deciding to wear a headscarf. She moved to the U.S. where she worked as a pharmacist for several years while wearing a headscarf. In 2009 she moved back to Ankara and is now a full time homemaker. She told me that she would like to work, but it is too difficult to find a private hospital willing to hire her. Public hospitals must comply with the ban.I met a number of young women who were studying abroad and had returned to Turkey for the summer. Their families had encouraged them to work around the ban by studying in places such as Syria, Jordan, Iran, Poland, Britain, and the U.S. One woman explained to me that while she did not agree with the ban, she had no choice but to accept the law and work around it.
Most women do not have the opportunity or money to study abroad. One such woman attended the Duzce vocational training school. Because it was a vocational trade school, she was allowed to wear a headscarf but her limited skill set decreases her career prospects. When asked how she felt about the law she became red in the face and explained that she wanted to be free to practice her religion and dress as she pleased. She said she wished she lived in the U.S. where women are “free” to wear what they want.
The ban is a highly contested issue in Turkey. Over the years there have been several challenges to the ban, including the 2005 case of Leyla Sahin v. Turkey in which prosecutors argued that the ban forced students to choose between education and religion and discriminated against women who chose to practice a religion. The case went up to the European Court of Human Rights and the ban was upheld. The Court found that the rules on dress did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights and were “necessary restrictions” to uphold the principles of secularism.
In February 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that women may not seek an education if they could not wear the headscarf. The Parliament voted 79 percent in favor of the amendment on the grounds of equal access to education. However, many supporters of the ban feared the amendment had an alternate agenda of undermining secularism and took to the streets in protest. Several months later, Turkey’s Constitutional Court annulled the amendment arguing that it was against the founding principles of the Constitution.
In contrast to Turkey, there have been several legal cases in the U.S. where women took their employers to court for not allowing them to wear a headscarf and won. Discriminating on the basis of dress or religion is not tolerated by the U.S. legal system and is seen as a form of employment discrimination.
I am dumbfounded that it is easier to wear a headscarf in the U.S. than in a predominantly Muslim country. How is it that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s right to dress according to her religious beliefs whereas the Turkish Constitution denies that very same right?
I believe the differences between Turkey and the U.S. and can be traced back to a historic understanding of how the countries were founded.
The U.S. was founded on religious freedom. The First Amendment protects the right of an individual to hold and express religious beliefs. Today, despite post 9/11 hysteria and politicized religious misunderstandings running wild, the legal system and American society at large still understand the importance of protecting an individual’s right to expressing his or her beliefs. In the U.S., freedom to practice religion is cherished.
In contrast, Turkey was founded on dismantling a religious empire. Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which upheld Islam as its state religion. The Ottoman Empire spanned Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, and Islamic values and practices were deeply rooted in the Ottoman identity. “Ottoman” and “Muslim” were inextricably linked.
When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey in 1923, he wanted to nationalize the country around a new identity that was void of recognizable religious practices to ensure the empire did not return. In Turkey, freedom to not practice religion is cherished, even if it is at the expense of those who do wish to practice.
In my experience, many people are afraid of the headscarf because they do not understand it or worry about what is says of their own choices. With increased dialogue, something as trivial as a small piece of fabric may no longer be so threatening and scary.
The need for dialogue and to recognize differences while seeking to understand shared values is important in an increasingly global world. A friend of mine once said that true faith is when we leave our exclusivity and celebrate our sameness. Let us leave our exclusivity and reach out to others who may have chosen a different path. Let us seek to understand shared values before rushing to judgment. Let us work together and increase dialogue so that fear and assumptions are replaced with compassion and understanding.
And when that happens, when we can understand and value our sameness, I have no doubt we will come to a place where we can not only tolerate but also appreciate our differences.
About the Author:
Faten Hijazi works as a project lead for a semiconductor company where she is responsible for the design and delivery of engineering solutions. She received her bachelor's in computer engineering with a minor in mathematics from San Jose State University and is about to receive her MBA from Santa Clara University. Faten serves as a youth group counselor for high school girls in her local community. She is passionate about working with young women to develop confidence and self-respect. Faten’s family immigrated from Palestine and she has lived in California since she was a few months old. She lives in Santa Clara with her husband.