All in our heads

Culturally-mandated customs like the headscarf should not be barriers to friendship

By Meltem Naz Kaso

We are at a chic and friendly café in downtown Chicago with our loose teas and specialty foods. She looks shy. I study her face and the intimidating headscarf that swathes it as she shrinks from social contact. Am I threatening her with my body language? Am I offending her with my tight jeans and high heels? Am I creating a negative atmosphere that makes her uncomfortable?

We are international students from Turkey, but for us there is absolutely no such thing as “a common experience” that we both left behind before coming to the United States to study. For Turks, when a square piece of cloth covers a woman’s hair, a circle is drawn: You are either in it or you are not. And I am not.

I try to choose my words with caution. I try to smile without exaggerating. We talk about our daily lives and the struggles of being away from home. I am not sure if the scenario is different for two girls from Brazil, Bulgaria, or somewhere else. I don’t deny that regardless of our nationality, each of us is living his or her unique adventure in life. However, in today’s Turkey, people from all ages are completely polarized based on their view of the headscarf issue.

For example, I come from a family that believes the headscarf symbolizes the repression of women and goes against the fundamental principles of human rights and freedom. Though entirely of Muslim background, my relatives are disturbed by seeing women with headscarves. Well, disturbed might be too extreme a word; they are, at the very least, distressed and self-conscious about how the “Other” perceives them. “I bet she feels superior to me just because she wears a headscarf and I don’t” or “How can this man be a sincere, sensible leader when he is operating under Islamic fundamentalist guidelines rather than democratic principles?”—these thoughts constantly lie in the subtle undercurrents of their minds.

Of course, these are all my imposed interpretations. My general impression of my family’s experience when it comes to those who wear headscarves is quite limited. No Muslim has ever openly revealed to me either his or her feelings of discomfort when facing someone who did not hold on to the often-stigmatized headwear of Islamic faith.

However, I see no reason for me not to think that the self-consciousness and fear of being judged are present on both sides. In fact, they’re evident from my simple interaction with the girl in the coffee shop.

There we were, living on our own in the third biggest city of the country. Her name is Ayse. She is named after Prophet Muhammed’s wife, a testament to the faith of her upbringing. I was given the name Meltem because, back in 1985 and in 1988, the winners of the national beauty contests were Meltem Hakarar and Meltem Doganay. They proved themselves to be the best looking candidates with their bikinis, charming hair, and ideal waist-hip ratio.

According to Islam, respect for the body is shown through modesty and the veiling of the face. But a contemporary Western viewpoint asserts that such respect is shown by displaying a healthy and wholesome sexuality. In other words, balanced nudity is not only perfectly acceptable, but at times even honorable. Obviously, everyone does not strictly favor the former or latter view. But I cannot help but wonder if Ayse and I, simply by virtue of our names and backgrounds, are in some ways condemned to fall under one of these two categories.

Isn’t it interesting that the politicized polarity that is centered on cultural and religious grounds separated Ayse from me even before we were born? Fascinated by the power of this control mechanism that introduces itself as secularism to some families and theocracy to others, I now realize how each time I call her name, I tragically regenerate the schism between us.

But I do not want to. And so I ask: Is it possible to create an alternative vision of modernity that does not require Ayse to abandon Islamic guidelines to be friends with me? Is it really possible for her not to judge me for my more liberal lifestyle? Can we renegotiate our identities without being limited by our social roles, roles that were given to us from the very beginning of our lives? I want to liberate myself from these political issues and bridge the chasm that was created not by choice but by outdated cultural conflicts that should no longer apply to my life. Because I deeply want to get to know the real person in this marginalized outsider, and I want her to know the real person in me.

Meltem Naz Kaso is a first-year in the College.