Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Uncivil Society?: The Türban and the Failings of Political Discourse

PHOTO: This Internet-posted photograph illustrates the uncivil discourse that characterizes the headscarf debate. Such photos have been floating around the Internet in recent week on students' blogs and on the Facebook social networking site.

AKP announced on Sunday that it will wait for CHP to take recently passed amendments that effectively legalized women to wear the türban on university campuses before moving for a vote on Article 17 of the Higher Education (YÖK) law.

Meanwhile, I would like to draw attention to an excellent article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times relating to growing animosity toward women who wear the türban. The article portrays the sense of otherness that some secularists feel toward covered women, addressing how this sentiment has grown over the past years as a burgeoning religious class has begun to move up the economic ladder. Also provocative, the article examines claims that this discrimination parallels the United States' treatment of African Americans in the 1960s. This comparison has been drawn for some time by critics of the headscarf ban, and its dissection by Sabrina Tavernise is intriguing. Tavernise quotes Atilla Yayla as saying that strict secularists often "hate religious people" -- the latter often become targets of discrimination as a result. Quoting Yayla, "They don't encounter them as human beings. They want them to evaporate, to disappear as fast as possible." The story accounts the discomfort many covered women feel when walking in neighborhoods more liberal or Western, and such experience surely evidences the polarization that occurs when people come to think of the türban as a singular symbol of some grand ideology. It is this mode of thought that CHP has used as of late to conjure a politics of division -- a politics perhaps expedient for CHP, but which has the potential to send Turkey spiralling dangerously out of control. At a most basic level, such identity politics abuses women.

From talking to people about the türban, it is clear that the vituperative nature of attacks such as Baykal's and the uneasiness about lifting the türban ban rests squarely on how some have chosen to interpret the türban as a symbol. The ban might be read as unfair from a number of different vantage points, but key to these symbolic interpretations is the seizure of another's agency. To interpret the türban in one particular way is to label another's action according to one's own ideological narrative. When this happens what for many women is a matter of personal choice instead becomes subject to what is all too often a dangerously intolerant, unbending, and frequently hegemonic understanding of secularism. Using this understanding to read the action of the türban-wearer, the defender of secularism imagines the covered woman as something "other." The türban-wearer is no longer to be treated as an individual whose reasons for dress might be complex and multi-faceted, but rather an actor in a political drama. Instead of the türban-wearer being able to choose her own lines, the defenders of secularism in this drama exert control over the story. What unfolds is very much an intrusion into the lives of others. Coercive in their reduction of reality, the stories surrounding the türban do not account for the multi-dimensional realities involved women's choices. The stories instead seek to categorize decisions about apparel in a taxonomy very much instrumental to reinforcing a particular view of things, and are thereby used as tools to hegomonically control the lives of the women.

A wonderful example of such story-telling can be seen in the recent rhetorical gamesmanship of Baykal. Differentiating the türban from the headscarf worn by whom Baykal often refers to as our "mothers and sisters in the Anatolian heartland," the türban is an object of foreign cultures—of a creeping Islam that is determined to undermine the values of the secular Republic. What is perhaps most telling is the amount of description and allusion Baykal has spent in strengthening this narrative. Further, like all good narratives, it has united opposition behind the headscarf as self-avowed 'defenders of the Republic' rush to assume their roles in the political drama. In the game of practical politics, it has strengthened Baykal's standing in the CHP and assured him continued support despite the fact that he is far from popular within the party. For an illustration of this narrative's re-telling in action, see this video on YouTube that has been making the rounds recently. I have so far received it in my inbox six times in just the past two weeks.

These stories are also dangerous in that they foster a more uncivil society. Instead of individuals coming together as individuals each with their own unique agency and multiple potentials, and most important, in recognition of their plurality, multiplicity and plurality are replaced by the singularity and reductive function of ideology. Intolerance and the reduction of difference, rather than its celebration for creative potential, come to define political relations between citizens and here enters Tavernise's investigation.

While I agree that discrimination against covered women is a serious problem that merits discussion, I want also to say that it seems to me that such intolerance is practiced by only a small minority. Further, discrimination is usually quite veiled —perhaps the occasional smirk and, most often, a sense that women who cover themselves are uppity. This is not unlike the attitude that some Americans feel toward religious people who opt to move outside of the social spheres where they have felt most comfortable. What is the most disheartening about the headscarf issue as it presently stands in Turkey is that it is precisely this integration of spheres and publics of which Turkey is in most need if its democratization project is to develop real roots in Turkish society. In İzmit, too often groups tend to form that seem to have this or that particular identity and rarely co-mingle. Usually, when I see a covered woman she is accompanied by other covered women. Likewise, women who are dressed in much more modern clothes are usually walking arm-in-arm with other women like them. While it is not at all uncommon to see covered women walking arm-in-arm, it is something of which I nonetheless find myself taking note. In İstanbul, it is not an uncommon occurence at all.

Comparing Turkey and the United States in relation to what I mean by this seeming lack of integration between publics, the matter somewhat parallels the integration and sense of mystery built around 'otherness' that is still descriptive of race relations in the United States. Although younger generations of Americans seem to be moving past such characterizations, it is not at all uncommon to hear people refer to friends as their "black friends." To recall a famous episode of "Seinfeld" in which one of the characters actively seeks out a "black friend," the comedy sketch is telling in that it highlights the sense that race is for many people something still very mysterious and one-dimensional in American culture. The idea that I would reductively define my friend's identity by her race is abhorrent to many Americans, but to perhaps just as many people there is little offensive about it.

In Turkey, it is common for Kemalists to talk about having "covered women" as friends--and, by this, they usually mean women who wear the tight-fitting, allegedly "political" türban--but, just as it is for race relations in the United States, such descriptions are telling of the pervadingly reductive and one-dimensional thought on the issue. Increased integration in Turkish society between members of the country's established urban, modern, and secular established and its rising, devout, and newly urbanized middle-class is critical to the long-term democratic stability of the country. Contrary to so many fears that reside here, the real pillar of building democracy is pluralism—not secularism. If Turkish society is to more fully embrace pluralism, it is key that people begin to recognize identity as multi-dimensional and human relations as fluid. Sure, my friend is a "covered woman," but she also aspires to be an attorney, is a lover of Miles Davis, and studies Tae Kwan Doe. As I mentioned in my first blog post, no matter where I go, the one thing that never ceases to amaze and comfort me is how amazingly complex, surprising, and difficult people are to define. I find Turkey to be not the least bit exceptional in this regard. Sadly, the political discourse and social risk-taking that should accompany this diversity lags far behind, and this is perhaps the greatest disappointment of Turkish politicians in recent years.

In a country as amazingly and beautifully diverse as is Turkey when it comes to ethnicity, culture, and religious identity, it is a very sad thing indeed that political rhetoric remains so primitive and divisive. Rather than embrace complexity and what a favorite professor of mine once referred to as a toleration for the ambiguity that surrounds human relations, politicians have instead relied on narratives in which difference is reduced to barren roles more characteristic of dime store novels than reality. However, not only is such one-dimensionality sad—it is also dangerous.

Three days ago I received an invitation via Facebook—yes, I have a Facebook account—to join a group comprised of students opposed to the türban. I have received such invitations before, but what was shocking about this particular invitation was its disturbingly intolerant portrayal of covered women. The creators of this Facebook group had posted photos of themselves wearing what was supposed to be a türban while they posed in various and sometimes vulgar positions. One of the photos featured a rather chubby, typical-looking college student without a shirt and wearing a bra. While no doubt a joke to these students, the intention was to ridicule türban-wearing women. Crueler than other taunts I have observed, the group is representative of exactly the sorts of targeted jeers that risk driving covered women and the newly-landed religious middle class out of schools and neighborhoods in which they quite understandably might feel uncomfortable.

Ironically, it is this sort of reinforced segmentation of society that really does risk the rise of an Islamic state, and proponents of 'modernism' and 'secularism' should take heed of this warning. Turkey's best defense of avoiding Islamic tyranny is its population's coming to terms with pluralism, acceptance of the multiplicity inherent to human identity and relationships, and toleration and respect all individuals. If Turkish society can acheive all of this, a political discourse might emerge in Turkey deserving of its cultural richness and refusal to be easily categorized.

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