Turkish women taking off hijab pose a challenge for every political camp

The #10Year challenge social media trend turned into a heated debate on secularism in Turkey as women posted pictures of themselves previously wearing Islamic headscarves and now without.

The challenge, in which people post side-by-side photos of themselves from the present and 10 years ago, quickly spread around the world this year. But in Turkey, where the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government grows ever tighter, women covering or uncovering their hair becomes a political and contentious act.

“#1YearChallenge - we grew up, became more beautiful, more free,” said one of the first such posts on Twitter, referring to the new hashtag adopted by Turkish women. The pictures showed a young woman wearing a pale headscarf, then the same woman, with loose shoulder-length brown hair. The post received more than 30,000 responses in one night and the user locked her account the next morning. 

The reactions varied, with Islamists denouncing the user and some secularists welcoming her, some women applauding the post and some men making advances. Both threats and praise rained down. But, more importantly, hundreds of other women who had removed their headscarves or hijabs, mostly in their early twenties, began posting their photos and continue to do so.

More women joined in, even as the first ones to set the trend locked their accounts and deleted their posts.

The hashtag #1YearChallenge soon went viral, with each post telling a different individual story. Some explained how they had transformed from a believer to someone questioning Islam, some said they had been forced to wear the hijab and had struggled to take it off. All the stories were of women who had gone through a difficult process. 

“I am a 10-year-old in this photo. I am a kid going to primary school,” one woman said, adding that all her photos from that time had been taken for official documents, as she then believed taking photos was a sin.

“I was a kid who had to leave school at fourth grade, who never had a chance to skip because of her long skirt. If getting rid of this is not freedom, then what is,” the woman said in response to criticism that poured in after her first post.

“Nobody can know better than you what you had to struggle against, where you were the winner and where you were defeated, what you felt, what you were afraid to feel, what was inside you. Always walk with your head high, all you need is yourself,” another woman who joined the #1YearChallenge said.

“This has nothing to do with family or environment. Our thoughts about ourselves and what we can do have become liberated. We have cleared ourselves of all the norms imposed by religion. We did not play the role that was expected from us. We became ourselves,” said another woman who had removed her hijab.

The hijab has been particularly politicised in Turkey since 1997, when the military, then the staunchest defenders of the republic’s secularist tradition, forced out the country’s first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in what became known as a “post-modern coup”. 

The extension to universities of an existing ban prohibiting women from wearing headscarves in the public sector was among legislation instituted after Erbakan’s downfall designed to curtail the growth of Islam as a political force.

The ban played an important role in the rise to power of Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party in 2002. The party lifted the headscarf ban in universities in 2007, and six years later ended the one on public sector employees.

The debate on the hijab and headscarf has throughout the AKP period become so familiar in Turkey that people are suffering from “headscarf fatigue”, from listening to the same arguments on the hijab rehashed by each side for decades

What happened last week on Twitter represents an undercurrent of women who have been trying to find their voice for more than a year in the mainstream debate. 

This undercurrent gained visibility last year with a new website, “You Will Not Walk Alone” (Yalnız Yürümeyeceksin). The website includes essays written by women, including stories from women who took off their hijab, but also from those who have thought about removing it but bowed to pressure to keep it on and those who are still considering removing theirs.

As one Twitter user pointed out, the website’s title calls to mind both the song popularised by fans of Liverpool Football Club, but also a popular Turkish novel from the 1990s, “You Are Not Alone” (Yalnız Değilsiniz), which told the story of a woman who decided to live her life according to Islam’s rules, despite pressure from secularist family and friends. 

“I am still wearing a headscarf, but I have been an atheist for almost a year,” reads a title from one essay on the website. “It was really difficult to be a homosexual and wear the headscarf,” another said. Some reveal stories of women who feel they are living double lives, taking off their hijab outside and putting it back when coming back to their homes. 

“What tears me apart is the nonsensical pressure people put on me with their perceptions, the pressure in the society for me to take off headscarf, the pressure of my family - particularly my father - to keep hijab, I am so tired,” one contributor said at the end of her post.

Recent figures by pollster Konda show that the percentage of woman who say they wear headscarves has remained almost same in the last 10 years at around 53 percent. Those who are not covered increased from 34 percent to 37 percent in a decade, while those who say they wear the more overtly religious hijab decreased by four percent and is now at 9 percent.

It is therefore still too early to say whether this movement signals a significant change in religiosity in Turkey. Yet it demonstrates one fact beyond doubt: the emergence of a new generation of women who have grown up during the 17 years of Islamist rule

Those women will undoubtedly challenge and contribute to existing feminist movements in the country. In fact, they have for months complained that they have not been receiving enough support from feminists. Their latest move has brought the debate to the fore.

A Pandora’s Box was opened by women taking off their hijab, said feminist academic Eylem Ümit. “I do not know whether the public is ready to talk about it or not. It does not matter even if it is not ready, there is no way out of it anymore.”

One would assume the move would be welcomed by Turkey’s most ardent secularists, but that is also questionable. One veteran journalist and well-known hardline secularist, Mine Kırıkkanat, warned her Twitter followers on Saturday that she thought the intensive posts of women taking off their headscarves could be a manipulation by the Gülen movement.

Kırıkkanat said this in an environment where being linked to the Gülen movement means imprisonment for thousands, as the religious group is accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2016 and is now labelled a terrorist organisation

If the reaction to the #10YearChallenge has shown one thing, it is how difficult it is to be oneself in a deeply divided society, as one Twitter user deftly explained:

“I took off my headscarf, and a lot of time has passed since then. Now I have been slowly understanding other things. For example, some people would not have behaved towards me the same if I were not uncovered. Feeling this, being aware of this is devastating”.