A recent opinion poll suggests that levels of piety in Turkey have remained virtually unchanged since the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in November 2002.
According to a study conducted by A&G research in September 2007, 61.4% of adult women in Turkey wear the Islamic headscarf, down from 64.2% in a similar survey conducted by the same company in May 2003. Some of the Turkish press interpreted the decline as an indication that Turkey is becoming less religious (Milliyet, September 28). However, the difference between the two polls falls well within the margin in error. Furthermore the September survey only included the results from interviews with 924 women in less than half of Turkey’s 81 provinces; much too small a sample to be sure that the figures are a precise reflection of the overall situation in a country with a population of over 73 million.
Women wearing Islamic headscarves are currently banned from attending university or being employed by the state. Hard-line secularists in Turkey maintain that the headscarf is a political symbol and that the ban has to be maintained in order to protect the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution. But only 18.7% of respondents interviewed in the September survey regarded the headscarf as a political symbol, while 73.7% supported the lifting of the headscarf ban and 70.5% had no objection to the wife of the Turkish president wearing a headscarf.
Nevertheless, the survey did suggest a rough correlation between wearing the headscarf and party political preferences. Only 19.3% of women who voted for the militantly secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) covered their heads, rising to 52.5% for the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), 79.8% for the AKP, and 100% for the hard-line Islamist Felicity Party (SP). Perhaps more significantly, the survey reinforced the results of earlier research that have suggested that the headscarf is often an indicator of socioeconomic status.
The liberalization of the Turkish economy during the 1980s gave a huge boost to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Anatolia, most of which were owned by relatively conservative Muslims. The result was the emergence of an “Islamic bourgeoisie,” who moved their business headquarters and private homes to the metropolitan cities of western Turkey. But the September survey indicated that there is still a correlation between income levels and women covering their heads. For example, women who wore the headscarf lived in households with an average monthly income of around $600. For women who did not cover their heads the average monthly household income was over $1,000.
There were similar differences in levels of education. Only 11.3% of female university graduates wore a headscarf. However, the ban on the headscarf in Turkish universities means that most of these women either received a university education in another country or were only able to wear the headscarf after they had graduated. Very devout women often choose to forego a university education rather than have to attend classes with their heads uncovered. As a result, the figures for women who had not attended university are probably more significant.
The survey suggested that 24.5% of women who were high school graduates covered their heads, rising to 56.1% for women who had only received a middle school education, 79.7% for those who had only attended elementary school, and 90.8% for those who had not even completed elementary school.
The survey reported that 44.5% of women who lived in metropolitan areas wore the headscarf, increasing to 62.8% in towns and 74.1% in the countryside.
There was also an increase in the percentage of women wearing headscarves going from west to east across the country. Only 50.3% of women in the Aegean region, which is the westernmost area of Turkey, wore headscarves, rising to 51.2% in the Marmara region, which includes Istanbul, and 54.8% along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. However, the rate rose rapidly to 67.4% in central Anatolia, 70.3% in eastern Anatolia, 74.5% along Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast, and 84.6% in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, which is also the most underdeveloped region of the country.
The survey did not include details of the average age of the respondents or any indication of the ages of the respondents in the different regions or their marital and educational status, which is particularly important given that Turkish women sometimes only begin to cover their heads after they have graduated from university or after they have married. However, the survey suggested that, in Turkey as a whole, 43.8% of women in the 18-27 age group covered their heads, compared with 65.4% in the 28-43 age group and 76.1% for women aged 44 or older (Milliyet, Radikal, September 28).