Sumeyye Arslan was in her penultimate year of medical school when Turkey's military led a crackdown on "Islamic reactionaries" in 1998. Like roughly two thirds of Turkish women, Arslan wore a headscarf. She was expelled from medical school for it. After years of hardship, including a rift with her father, an imam, who wanted her to uncover her head so she could complete her studies, she was finally able to obtain a medical degree from an Austrian university. Back in Turkey, she thought things would get better at the workplace, but they didn't. Her headscarf meant she couldn't find employment in state hospitals or clinics. Set up and run by men professing to share her attachment to an Islamic '”Just Order,”' private hospitals offered her a minimum wage for 50-hour weeks. A decade later, bitterer and wiser, Arslan has come to the conclusion that the real discrimination against headscarf-wearing women is at work. "At university, we assumed the state had a monopoly on discrimination," she said. "In the workplace, everybody discriminates against covered women, secular, religious, it makes no difference." One of Turkey's leading thinktanks, the Istanbul-based Turkey Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), published a pioneering study November 9 on 'headscarf-wearing professionals in the workplace' that largely concurs with Arslan’s impressions. Based on in-depth interviews with 79 professional women - lawyers, doctors and journalists - who cover their heads, the 90-page study punctures what Dilek Cindoglu, the sociologist who coordinated it, calls the "widespread belief that the private sector is free of discrimination." From the moment women ponder whether to send in their CVs with or without a photograph, they are acknowledging the possibility that the headscarf they wear could reduce their chance of getting the job. In large part that is because, while roughly 65 percent of Turks are employed by small, privately-owned companies, many of those companies have relations with state institutions where headscarves are banned. But there are also subtler pressures stemming from the fact that the headscarf symbolizes different things to different people. For many men, it has connotations of demureness, of being the good neighborhood girl, Cindoglu's interviewees told her. "Nobody sees you as an engineer," complained one. "They see you as a little sister. They don't take you seriously." Politically, meanwhile, it has connotations of backwardness, and even conservative companies don't want to project that image. Management "doesn't like the idea of having two covered women in reception," commented Ayse, a journalist for a conservative newspaper. "They prefer one covered, one uncovered, or both uncovered, to brighten up the shop front, as it were." A more serious obstacle is the widespread perception, backed up by interpretations of Islam commonly held in Turkey, that men are financially responsible for their families. During hard economic times, this belief has been used as justification to lay-off women before men. "When the  financial crisis hit and they had to cut back, they kicked us [women] out, telling us 'you're not the ones keeping your families afloat,'" remembered Rojin, another journalist. Statistics presented in a 2009 report by Turkey's Organization for State Planning (DPT) and the World Bank show that the percentage of Turkish women working has dropped from 34 percent to 22 percent in the 20 years after 1988. Over the same period, average women's work rates in thirteen other Muslim countries including Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia has risen from 30 percent to 33 percent. OECD averages, meanwhile, rose to over 60 percent. Like four other Turkish reports published between 2009 and 2010, the DPT/World Bank report puts the drop in women at work down to a number of factors, including massive rural exodus. Cindoglu acknowledges that rapid urbanization, combined with the widespread conservative view that a woman's place is at home, are factors. But she wonders why the percentage of working female university graduates has also dropped in the same period, from 80.3 percent to 70 percent. "My study offers no clear answers here, but I have a hunch that there is a degree of ideological blindness in these reports, that there is a correlation between bans on covered women in the labor market and the drop," she said. She points out that DPT/World Bank statistics correspond to a period in which bans on headscarves in Turkish universities and state buildings - based on clothing regulations imposed by a military junta in 1981 and initially half-hearted -- grew in intensity. The headscarf issue is once again at the top of the agenda in Turkey following the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's move last month to end university bans. Amid alarmist reports in the secular media of girls as young as eight arriving at school with their heads covered, Turkey's president, the former AKP minister, Abdullah Gul, stated his opposition November 9 to headscarf-wearing primary school children. His wife, who wears a headscarf, expressed the same view the day before. Dilek Cindoglu thinks the time is ripe for Turkey to discuss the headscarf in a calmer and more rational way, and she hopes her report may help foster such debate. Among secular Turks, she points out, there is a widespread view that women cover their heads at the behest of men, making the headscarf a symbol of their "subjection to a patriarchal order." Yet in a way, regulations introduced by secularists have strengthened the hand of the conservative mentality they claim to oppose. "The key to [women's] emancipation is economic independence," Cindoglu says. "If you deny women access to the labor market, as is the case at the moment, you are reinforcing this vicious circle of dependence." Asked whether the number of Turkish women in work is likely to rise over the next two decades, Cindoglu laughingly says she is not a soothsayer, but that the women she interviewed gave her hope. "These are women who are not happy to sit back and accept what is given to them," she said. As one of her interviewees, Nadide, put it: "I didn't study just so I could stick my certificate on the wall at home and admire it, I studied so I could get out and do some good."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.