Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
February 18, 2008 Monday

Headscarf ban wears on Turks;
If their native land ends order, locals may return

By Heather Haddon


Mevlude Alic's high school years in Turkey started with a daily act of humiliation.

In the women's bathroom of her school, Alic gathered with other students and teachers to remove their headscarves, in accordance with Turkey's ban on religious covering in public classrooms. The act contradicted a central tenet in the Quran that woman should dress modestly when outside their homes.

So when it came time for college, Alic made the hardest decision of her young life. The 17-year-old left her family and friends in Turkey and moved to Clifton, where she could study and follow her religious customs.

"These bad rules were killing me," said Alic, as she walked through the campus of Bergen Community College in a light blue scarf on Friday. "That's why I came here. If I would stay in Turkey, I would have to (take off) my scarf."

Every year, Turkey's ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn in accordance with Islam, drives women to leave their homes for American colleges, including those in North Jersey. But that might change after the country passed constitutional reforms last week that end the ban.

In Muslim tradition, women must cover their heads once they reach puberty. Fewer Turkish women wear hijab than in other Muslim nations, in part because of the country's longstanding secularism. In 1981, Turkey enacted the ban on headscarves in public universities to maintain the country's official secularist policies, but the government only started enforcing the restriction in 1997.

Last week, the country's new religious government passed a package of constitutional reforms that includes lifting the ban.

Turkey's strong secular establishment immediately protested the change, and debate has continued in the parliament.

The issue has also sparked strong feelings among the thousands of Turks living in North Jersey. According to the latest Census figures, 2,300 people of Turkish ancestry lived in Passaic County in 2000.

Secular Turks living here fear the country's Islamic ruling party has pushed the country to become more religious. They also worry women will come under pressure to cover their heads.

Religious Turks and human rights advocates support the development as a move toward freedom of expression. For years, the ban has forced women to travel abroad for their educations, wear wigs to classes or simply not go to school. Now, the shift has inspired Turks living here to contemplate their futures.

"If this problem will resolve, I will go teach at a Turkish university," said Elif Akay, a 23-year-old graduate student at the City University of New York who came to Palisades Park from Turkey five months ago. "I really want it. This is my future idea."

The ban has left deep emotional scars for religious Turkish women. Zeynep Topaloglu still remembers the first day she walked into her microeconomics class without a scarf. "In simple words, it was really terrible for me," said Topaloglu, a 25-year-old Montclair resident originally from Istanbul.

Every morning, Topaloglu would duck into a room outside her campus to remove her scarf. So instead, Topaloglu put on a hat. Others wore wigs. Armed guards outside the university's gate ensured they made the switch, Topaloglu said.

"I felt like I was a criminal," said Topaloglu, as she ate at a Turkish restaurant in Clifton on Thursday night. "If you feel I'm danger, you shouldn't have let me into college."

The ban influenced Topaloglu's decision to finish her studies in America. Since the restriction went into effect, thousands more Turkish students have come to the U.S. to study. Last year, Turkey ranked sixth in the world in the number of students applying for American education visas, according to State Department records.

Religious Turks have relished the freedom they gain on campuses here. At Passaic County Community College, English as a Second Language instructor Kathleen Kelly said her female Turkish students often write essays about the joy of wearing a scarf on campus. But others express sentiments just as fierce about Turkey's secularism.

"(The new president) is trying to change everything," said Nehir Yavuz, a 29-year-old waitress in Clifton and a student at Felician College. "I see so many of my friends' mothers covering their heads now. Are we going to be like Iran in 10 years?"

On a recent evening in South Paterson, Turks expressed mixed reactions about the constitutional change. Some predicted women would face increasing social pressures to wear hijab. Already, more Turkish women decline to shake hands, a Muslim tradition, said Yusuf Tuncel, a Turkish native shopping for cell phones on Main Street.

But many Turks, even secular ones, support lifting the ban as a matter of freedom of expression. That aspect of the debate has resonated with local Muslims of all origins.

"Where is the freedom?" asked Nebal Nasser, the Syrian owner of an Islamic clothing store in Paterson who often sells scarves to local Turks. "I want to wear what I want to wear."

Nora Alarifi Pharaon, a Lebanese psychologist in Clifton, said her clients often speak about the emotions associated with wearing hijab. Government interference in that decision can be traumatizing.

"The headscarf is a political statement these days," Pharaon said. "Ultimately, it's a personal choice issue."

Now that Turkey will likely let female students wear headscarves, local women who left home over the matter have begun contemplating their options. Topaloglu, the Montclair resident, said she hopes to return to Istanbul to teach economics. But Alic feels too rooted in Clifton to leave.

"All my time here would be wasted," Alic said. "I was very happy to hear about the rule. But I don't want to go back again."