Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 223

The proportion of Turkish women who cover their heads has risen by more than five percentage points over the last four years, according to a survey by the Konda research company and published in the daily newspaper Milliyet.

The survey, which was conducted on September 8–9 2007, was based on interviews with 5,289 people in 41 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. A total of 69.4% of respondents said that they or their spouses cover their heads when outside the family home, up from 64.2% in a similar Konda poll in 2003, which was conducted shortly after the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in November 2002.

Although results of surveys of personal piety are difficult to check, Konda has a very good reputation for being able to predict the results of elections in Turkey. Its surveys of voter preferences in the run-up to the July 22 general election in Turkey were within less than one percentage point of the actual results.

The latest survey confirmed the results of previous research, which suggested a link between educational levels and perceptions of personal piety. A total of 94.7% of illiterate respondents said either they or their spouses covered their heads, falling to 82.2% of those with only an elementary school education, 73.1% of those with a middle school education, 47.2% of those with a high school education, 27.5% of those with a university degree, and 16.1% of those who had completed post-graduate studies. However, the precise relationship between education and women covering their heads remains unclear. In Turkey, particularly in poor rural areas, very pious families are often reluctant for their daughters to have an education.

There was also a clear correlation between personal wealth and women covering their heads. The survey divided the population into five categories according to income levels. Only 27.1% of those in the top 20% by income said that they or their wives covered their heads, rising to 47.3% in the second group, 62.7% in the third, 78.7% in the fourth, and 84.8% in the lowest income group.

Despite the AKP’s claim to be a conservative rather than a religious party, there was a similarly clear correlation between party political preferences and women covering their heads. A total of 86% of AKP supporters said that they or their wives covered their heads, falling to 67.6% for the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and 40.7% for the nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The survey divided Islamic headscarves into three categories: the all-covering black chador; the knotted head-covering traditionally worn by the women of Anatolia and known in Turkish as “basortusu”; and what is known in Turkish as a “turban,” which is usually tightly wound around the head and secured by a pin. The figures for 2007 suggest that the proportion of women wearing the chador remains virtually unchanged at 1.3%, compared with 1.2% in 2004. However, the proportion of women wearing the “turban” appeared to have risen more than fourfold from 3.5% in 2003 to 16.2% in 2007. Tarhan Erdem, the head of Konda, described the wearing of the turban as a political gesture, designed to express the wearer’s adherence to Islamic as opposed to Western values. But he admitted that the survey had not examined the reasons for women choosing the “turban” over the “basortusu.”

However, it is likely that the increase is as much a result of changes in lifestyles and nomenclature as a hardening of anti-Westernism. The “turban” is often worn together with a bulky overcoat, which is simply impractical in rural areas where women continue to be responsible for the bulk of manual agricultural labor. Many of those who wear the “turban” are also aware that for, hard-line Turkish secularists, it is seen as a political symbol – not least as indicating opposition to the current interpretation of secularism in Turkey. As a result, in conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, women wearing what secularists would call as a “turban” have frequently described it as a “basortusu.” It is likely that, with the AKP now firmly established in power, at least part of the sudden increase in the use of the “turban” simply reflects a greater confidence among its wearers.

Some of the results of the survey also reflect the rapid social changes that have accompanied, and largely fuelled, the rise to power of the AKP. During most of the 20th century, Turkey was ruled by a small, urban elite, schooled in the hard-line secularist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), who founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923. However, the countryside remained dominated by the values of traditional Islam. Starting in the 1950s, urbanization, rising welfare levels, and the spread of education not only brought rural values into the city but, particularly from the late 1980s onwards, resulted in the emergence of a pious, educated middle class.

Comparative results from 2003 and 2007 show that, even if there is still a relationship between education and piety, the gap is closing. Although the wearing of any form of head-covering is still forbidden in Turkish universities, many pious women are now able to circumvent the ban by uncovering their heads in class, wearing a wig, or going abroad to study.

As a result, the number of respondents with a university education who said that they or their spouses cover their heads has more than doubled over the last four years from 10.5% in 2003 to 26.6% in 2007. For those with a high school education, the proportion rose from 26.6% to 47.2% over the same period. For those with a middle school education the rate rose from 58.2% in 2003 to 73.1% in 2007. However, for those with only an elementary school education or less the figure increased by only 3.7 percentage points from 81.4% to 85.1%, less than the rate of increase of 5.2% in the population as a whole (Milliyet, December 3).