It now seems possible in practice for women who cover their heads to attend university. Richard Peres, an expert on discrimination law living in Istanbul, writes this essay about the problems Turkish women face AFTER they graduate. Where will they work? What can they do with their degrees? He discusses the discrimination faced by women in general in the labor force and covered women in particular.
He mentions Fatma Benli, a lawyer and head of a women’s NGO whom I also know, who is not allowed to appear in court because she covers her head. She must send in a representative to plead her cases. In 2008, she told me, she was invited to speak at a university about women’s issues, but was turned away at the door when she arrived and they realized she was covered. Her supporters demonstrated and she was allowed to enter and speak, but it was a distasteful example of prejudice against educated women who cover. A couple of years ago, covered women complained that even pious businesses put uncovered women employees in the front office and covered women in the back where no one would see them. And Peres’s story of his highly educated friend who finds that job openings mysteriously disappear when the potential employer learns that she covers is familiar to me. I know a number of women who have had this experience. Once I witnessed a young well-trained accountant looking for an apprenticeship position. She gave her credentials over the phone and the employer seemed very interested. They set up a meeting. At the last moment, the woman told the employer, “I should tell you that I cover.” The response. “Then forget it. Don’t bother to come in.” The young woman was incredibly frustrated. “All I want is some respect,” she lamented. “I tell them that I’m covered on the phone to save me a trip because it’s better than going all the way there and then, when they see me, being told there’s no job.”
Peres writes about the long and violent civil rights struggle in the US and argues that what made it successful was enforcement. When the laws were on the books giving people rights, but there were no statues that made it specifically illegal to discriminate, and when these laws were not enforced, discrimination continued. Only laws that have teeth and are enforced worked, so that now, finally, in the US it is possible for anyone to file a discrimination complaint based on race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference and other attributes. Here is an excerpt from Peres’s essay (for the full text, click here):
The goal of anti-discrimination laws in the US was not to change attitudes against African-Americans or prejudices against women. Instead, the objective was to change behaviors in the workplace. In the last 50 years tens of thousands of cases have been filed and litigated. The result today is that employers do all they can to avoid preferential treatment of one group or the other. The laws worked, and they worked because of tough and free enforcement by administrative agencies…
According to an article by Tarhan Erdem from the Radikal daily (Oct. 5, 2010), there are now 17.9 million headscarved women in Turkey, an increase from 16.8 million in 2007 and 14.8 million in 2003. The number of women who choose not to wear headscarves has decreased from 8.1 million in 2003 to 7.4 million in 2007 to 7.6 million in 2010.
Think of it: 18 million women who choose to wear headscarves. That is potentially a very significant political force but one that is not yet fully organized or led. Women who choose to wear a headscarf should consider getting better organized and involved, perhaps even forming their own political party, to influence the passage of anti-discrimination laws. If this force were ever to get organized, on the model of the US civil rights movement, it could bring about the landmark legislation and sweeping changes necessary to enable covered women to work in a non-discriminatory workplace environment. It could bring about behavior change in the workplace, compelled not by changing attitudes only but by the law. That type of change would also bring about more integration of covered women into the mainstream of employment and would support non-covered women as well, providing Turkey with a richer and more productive economy and society as a whole.
However, women who want to wear headscarves must take their struggle into their own hands and get involved in the political process. Waiting for other women, or men, regardless of political affiliation, to bring about real change, to truly reward their attainment of a university education, will unfortunately not be enough.