Racism in the U.S. & the Headscarf in Turkey

Even though many Americans think there are no unresolved racial issues in the U.S., since the Zimmerman verdict everybody is discussing them. Some do it in an awkward and uncomfortable way. Many speak from experience. It seems the "national conversation about race" will not end soon, for better or worse.

According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of black Americans agree with the statement that the "George Zimmerman verdict raises important issues about race that need to be discussed." Yet only 28 percent of white respondents agreed. Still, President Obama's 18-minute-long remarks on the verdict, which he gave last Friday in the White House briefing room, were very meaningful and impressive for many. Obama noted that "the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn't go away," then shared his personal opinion and experiences. I have quoted a lengthy passage here because I believe it's important:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.

Mr. Obama's sincere speech conquered the hearts of many Americans who had first criticized him after his initial reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. His remarks touched my heart in many ways and reminded me of a lot of things about a group of people's sad experiences with discrimination: Women who wear headscarves in Turkey.

For years, many women who chose to wear a headscarf in Turkey experienced discrimination because of their appearance. I've heard several unfortunate stories. Still, many people are so ignorant of the situation, and they don't even know if there is still a restriction on wearing headscarves in universities and in public sector jobs. Some say there is no such problem and point out that even the wives of the president and prime minister freely wear headscarves!

Yet, even though many people think wearing a headscarf is not an issue in Turkey, last week started with the scandalous news of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç confirming that the Ministry of Education appealed a 2012 decision by the Council of State removing the headscarf ban for teachers working in the public sector.

Unfortunately, somehow a physical manifestation of a woman's faith has become a threatening political symbol in Turkey. Even some conservatives have mixed feelings when it comes to the headscarf. They claim they are fine with the headscarf but, because it's used as a political tool in Turkey, they agreed on a headscarf ban in the public sector. At this point, I'd like to mention Sana Rahim, a young Pakistani-American girl who went to Istanbul Bilgi University for a summer exchange program in 2009 but because she wears a headscarf she had a problem in being allowed to study at the university. "Covering the head with a scarf on university campuses is still legally not allowed," the counselor wrote to her, but also mentioned that "at Bilgi, students can cover their head and headscarf with a hat or hood and can attend the university and use the facilities." As an American-born Muslim, Rahim was shocked. Ironically, she could comfortably go anywhere in the U.S. with her headscarf, but couldn't do so in Turkey, even though the majority of the country is Muslim. Still, she was accepted and attended the program with her headscarf, an exception to the rule, while some Turks whose headscarf style was not too different from hers were not allowed. "There is nothing modern or secular about repressing women's access to education because of their religious beliefs. The way forward must be of dialogue, reconciliation, and respect." Sana Rahim indicated by her personal experience.

Rahim said she was told several times that 'people are not against the headscarf in Turkey, they are against using it as a political tool.' She said, "They respected me, but had a strong prejudice [against] natives that they believed only wanted to cover their hair for political reasons."

"Prejudice is like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating," said Marian Anderson, a great contralto and one of the most widely renowned African-American singers. Yet, even in the more than five decades after Anderson's death, after the rise to fame of hundreds of African-American celebrities, even after the election of a black president, the U.S. is still feeling the discomfort of that hair across its cheek, and it seems Turkey will be uncomfortable with that hair for a while, too.

To read more Arzu Kaya-Uranli click here. She writes weekly articles for Today's Zaman.