Struggling for Religious Identity in A More Modern, Secular Turkey
High school hurt for Havva Yilmaz. She tried out several selves. She ran away. Nothing felt right.
“There was no sincerity,” she said. “It was shallow.”
So at 16, she did something none of her friends had done: She put on an Islamic head scarf.
In most Muslim countries, that would be a nonevent. In Turkey, it was a rebellion. Turkey has built its modern identity on secularism. Women on billboards do not wear scarves. They are banned in schools and universities. So Yilmaz had to drop out of school. Her parents were angry. Her classmates stopped calling her.
Like many young people at a time of religious revival across the Muslim world, Yilmaz is more observant than her parents. Her mother wears a scarf, but cannot read the Quran in Arabic. They do not pray five times a day. The habits were typical for their generation — Turks whose families moved from the countryside during industrialization.
“Before I decided to cover, I knew who I was not,” Yilmaz said, sitting in a leafy Ottoman-era courtyard. “After I covered, I finally knew who I was.”
While her decision was in some ways a recognizable act of youthful rebellion, in Turkey her personal choices are part of a paradox at the heart of the country’s modern identity.
Turkey is run by a party of observant Muslims, but its reigning ideology and law is strictly secular, dating from the authoritarian rule in the 1920s of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former army general who pushed Turkey toward the West and cut its roots with the Ottoman East. For some young people today, freedom means the right to practice Islam, and self-expression means covering their hair.
They are redrawing lines between freedom and devotion, modernization and tradition and blurring some prevailing distinctions between East and West.
Yilmaz’s embrace of her religious identity has thrust her into politics. She campaigned to allow women to wear scarves on college campuses, a movement that prompted emotional, often agonized, debates across Turkey about where Islam fit into an open society. That question has paralyzed politics twice in the past year and a half, and has drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest what they said was a growing religiosity in society and in government — though just how observant Turks are remains in dispute.
By dropping out of the education system, she found her way into Turkey’s growing, lively culture of young activists.
In the middle of January, the head scarf became the focus of a heated national outpouring, and Yilmaz one of its most eloquent defenders.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to pass a law letting women who wear them into college. Staunchly secular Turks opposed broader freedoms for Islam, in part because they did not trust Erdogan, a popular politician who began his career championing a greater role for Islam in politics and who has since moderated his stance.