If I had not lived in Turkey for over 20 years as a hijabi woman, if I had not been denied the right to work or pursue an education, if I had not struggled to wade through mud roads in a thick smog to arrive home to no water and no electricity, if I had not witnessed my friends’ daughters having to choose between education and their beliefs, if I had not been denied entry to a university carpark merely because I wore a headscarf, if I had not been called “jahil” (ignorant) or backwards because I wore that same headscarf, that is, if I had come to Turkey with a bared head, I wonder how I would have voted in the elections last month.
If I hadn’t known that the Gülen Movement systematically stole answers to exams and that before them other groups with a stranglehold on power had done the same, I might be happy that AK Party did not gain an outright majority. “They need to be brought down a peg or two” I would say. I would feel that the process of negotiations, of trying to establish a coalition was a positive one, one that would only make Turkey stronger.
If I had been able to sit in luxurious restaurants and chat with the best and brightest, not worrying that my husband might lose his job because he prays, I too might wonder how the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) got so powerful and wonder why they allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to maintain a “stranglehold” on the country.
If I had come to Turkey as a Western foreigner, living among the elite of the country, I would not have worried about my children’s education, which not only was far below any standards I expected, but also full of fear and trepidation. If I had come to Turkey as a Western foreigner, when a teacher struck my older daughter on the head for forgetting her homework I could have lodged a complaint. However, with my children in state schools, I had to bite my tongue; any complaint would have made my daughter and her siblings targets of the teachers. In the 90s it was the teachers who ran the state schools; the parents had no voice.
If I had come to Turkey with a bared head, I probably would not have had friends on the Mavi Marmara; friends who sent me messages at four in the morning saying “we are under attack.” I probably would not have woken that fateful morning to the news of deaths and detainment by the Israelis; I probably would have thought that Tayyip Erdoğan had gone too far when he walked out on Davos. I probably would not understand what all the fuss was about
If I had not traveled to central Anatolia nearly 30 years ago, and every year subsequently, if I hadn’t seen how even professional people had to struggle to survive, to get running water and indoor plumbing in their houses, I probably would have frowned on those “who scratch their bellies” being allowed into Parliament. I probably would have agreed that such people could not represent the “interests” of the people well enough.
If I hadn’t worked in jamaat schools where I was told to hide the fact that I pray; if they hadn’t told me I couldn’t have a Quran in my locker, if I had not been told that I could only continue to work if I removed my headscarf, as this would be symbolic to the girls, if I had not ended up unemployed because I refused to abandon my principles, I would probably wonder why people still were fussing about the headscarf ban. I would probably be upset that the AK Party made use of religious sentiments and kept this matter on the agenda. I probably would have said “Can’t they just get over the past? They are allowed into these schools now…”
If I had spent my time with people who preferred Western movies, music, food, anything as long as it was Western, to that which is Turkish, I might have been happy about the Gezi Park events, even after they turned violent. Maybe I too would have banged on pots and pans to demonstrate that I did not want “backward” people leading the way forward anymore. Maybe I would have tried to liberate those poor women in their headscarves. Are they not in need of my intervention? Surely they only wear headscarves because they do not know better. No one has ever told them about the beautiful world of freedom that awaits them. Maybe I would have thought that such women (like me) needed to be liberated; they needed to be educated… Perhaps, just perhaps, I would be with those who pulled off their scarves, although I would like to think that I would not go that far. But if I thought I was doing them a favor? If I didn’t realize that under that scarf was a teacher, a doctor, a professor, a thinking brain? Perhaps… I dread to think that I would be so disrespectful of the rights of others, of their personal space, but then there is that dreadful factor of crowd mentality, when people stop thinking for themselves…
Perhaps, if I had spent the past 20 years living in Turkey as I had lived in the West before becoming Muslim, if I had not learned how these people, people who make up nearly 70 percent of the Turkish nation, lived, I too would have spent last month worrying about the future of Turkey. I probably would have voted for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), even though I am not Kurdish. But as a self-respecting liberal, perhaps I would have thought that the party which best represented me was the HDP.
That is, if I hadn’t known better, my bleeding-heart liberal sentiments – and yes, I do know that bleeding-heart liberal is a derogatory statement, but as it is one that I am making about myself, about my sentiments, allow me to make it without an intake of breath or a raised eyebrow – my bleeding-heart liberal sentiments, worn in pride of place on my sleeve, would have turned me towards the pro-Kurdish HDP.
This is a party that might have appealed to my inner inclinations; even the vibrant colors of the party would have beckoned to me. However, the reality is that this is a party which has taken up every liberal ideal in an attempt to get more votes. What do liberals want? Women’s rights? Ok, take that. Gay rights? Ok, take that. How women’s rights and gay rights will be championed for alongside Kurdish rights is still unclear to me; and probably it is still unclear to many people who voted HDP.
True, there is a men’s section, headed by Demirtaş and a women’s section, headed by Figen Yüksekdağ; both act as joint heads for the part. That is women have equality in the party….but, wait a minute…a men’s section and a women’s section? Isn’t that segregation? Isn’t that what people blame the so-called Islamists of? Isn’t it better for men and women to discuss, decide and rule together, side by side?
In any case, if I had been a person who did not have much contact with the “real” Turkey, I probably would have voted HDP. How would I feel about my vote at the moment? I would perhaps be a bit disappointed that HDP doesn’t want to talk with AK Party about a coalition. I would probably be pleased that the MHP (what this hypothetical “me” would see as an extreme right wing nationalist party) did not want to have anything to do with HDP. After all, why would the party I, me, a bleeding-heart liberal, voted for have anything to do with the right-wing MHP?
If the HDP had not appeared, this alternative me, this me who is cut off from the reality of Turkey, would, I hate to admit it, probably have voted for the CHP. What other choice would it have? So, if I had come to Turkey as a non-Muslim foreigner, as someone who was Western in every way, someone who was living a life very similar to that I had lived in the West, a life of privilege and elitism, I would probably have voted HDP or CHP.
But I didn’t. When I came to Turkey I came with bleeding-heart liberal values. I came with an education steeped in democratic and humanitarian ideals. I came equipped with political philosophies. If I had come as a member of a Western elite, as a non-practicing Muslim, these would have remained ideals, a flag to wave, proving that I stood for what was right and just. But I came to Turkey with a headscarf; this headscarf immediately made me into a second-class citizen. I didn’t know Turkish at that time, and this just compounded the problem, making me an “ignorant second-class citizen.” That is, the privilege of being a foreigner was not a privilege for me. My headscarf made it a disadvantage.
Every day I am grateful that this is how things worked out. If I had not had to endure the struggles that came with the hijab, I would have remained as I had been, or perhaps regressed, becoming more conservative. But, fortunately I grew. I came to know the “people” of Turkey. I came to know how they lived. Indeed, I had to live like them. I lived in mud-covered streets, walked in smog-filled skies, struggled to board overcrowded minibuses with small children. I attempted to run a house on a couple of hours of running water a week and make ends meet with a my husband’s academic salary which barely covered the rent
I learned new skills; I learned how to keep my head down. I learned that if you raised your head, people noticed you…I learned to avoid certain areas of the city. Here were no-go zones for me, for a foreigner in a headscarf. An educated foreigner in a headscarf….This made certain people uncomfortable. I represented a confusing conundrum for them. The covered woman is ignorant. The covered woman suffers due to patriarchal society; the scarf is a peasant tradition which has no place in modern secular society.
And there it is. I was an educated Western woman. Not just educated – I came from a family of academics, with generations of higher education; I came from a liberal – bleeding-heart liberal, even bordering on socialist – background. A left-wing background. And I chose to wear the hijab. In Turkey, in the 90s…
This was not something people were able to understand when I came to Turkey. And it is still something that many people find hard to comprehend today. They look at my headscarf and assume that I voted for AK Party… and they are not wrong. Their error is in assuming that my husband forces me to wear the headscarf, that I am oppressed; their error is their assumption that only people who do not think or cannot think are practicing Muslims and it is these people who vote for AK Party.
That is, if I took off the scarf and talked to them, telling them about my background and political views, if they knew nothing about my faith or sartorial preferences, they would assume I voted for the HDP or CHP.
Sometimes, thinking about how different my life would have been if I had not made that defining step towards being a Muslim, I ask myself – would I, if circumstances had been different, if I had come and lived the life of the elite in Istanbul, would I really not have voted for AK Party? I think about this….and then I sigh. Give yourself a break, I say. Would you really not have noticed? Would you not have seen those girls outside the imam-hatip schools getting dragged by their scarves, arms, hair into police cars? Would you have thought “Serves them right” when the graduating nurses had hands placed over their mouths and their nursing caps torn from their heads? Would I really have been so callous that the hundreds of young men and women protesting outside Istanbul University demanding only that they be given an education would have left no reaction in me but “Leave your religion at home then…”
I sincerely hope not. There is no way for us to know how we would react if things were different. But I hope that my bleeding-heart liberalism would always encourage me, one who had privileges, to share with those who had less, to take the side of the downtrodden, to champion the deserving victims.
Would I really not have noticed how much the AK Party has done to improve people’s lives? I think not. It is almost impossible to not see the vast improvements in the economy and infrastructure, as well as in education and health services.
Would I have believed everything the Western media and much of the Turkish media has said about the AK Party and the president of Turkey? I fear that that may have been the case; it is too easy to believe bad about someone if they do not represent your personal interests or values. But would I have found that necessary grain of salt, that inkling of a doubt? The optimist in me likes to think that I would have found that.
I came to Turkey as a believing Muslim and that choice shaped my life. Turkey is at a crossroads; we may have elections ahead. We may have a coalition government. There is only one thing I can be sure of at the present time. The person I was 30 years ago, the person who had yet to come to Turkey, was living in a bunker, protected from reality by constructions of her own making. That person was ignorant and knew nothing. This person could have come to Turkey and never have needed to really learn the language; her children would have been educated at expat schools and she would have been a “lady who lunches.”
However, when throwing off the shackles of misguided religious sentiments, I threw on the shackles of oppression by my fellow human being. My conversion, my liberation, made others uncomfortable. It made them persecute me, sometimes more than if I had been Turkish. I witnessed people being brutally mistreated. I learned how other people lived; I lived as they did. I suffered with them and was punished as one of them for daring to openly express my religious beliefs.
So in any future elections, I will once again vote AK Party. Although I will be the first to admit that there are flaws that need to be dealt with in the party, I know that it is the party that fulfills the needs of the country best. I will not hesitate, I will not hover, wondering whether I should put my seal on the CHP or the HDP space. Rather I will firmly find the “lightbulb” and press down a wholehearted YES. This will be the case for as long as the party represents the people of Turkey. I do not need them to represent me. For 20 plus years I have managed to live, to get by, to learn to walk with my head down. It makes little difference to me. I know what it is like to walk with one’s head held high. I don’t want the AK Party to form a government to fulfill my interests. I want it to form a government so that the people can continue to hold their heads high, covered or uncovered, hijabi or non-hijabi, and walk down the streets, side by side. As long as the AK Party can deliver this, they have my vote.
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