Yesterday, Peter Sterne, Bwog’s Turkish Economics Bureau Chief, hopped to the International Affairs Building to learn about “Headscarf Discrimination: Labor Market Discrimination in Contemporary Turkey” with Dilek Cindoglu, a visiting professor at Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWaG). To learn more about the controversy surrounding veiling, check out this archive.

Ten or so people not scared away by the lecture title crammed into IAB 801 to hear Cindoglu explain the connection between the Turkish ban on headscarves and the job market. Though only one woman in the audience wore a headscarf, most of of the audience seemed to have at least a passing awareness of Turkey’s ban on wearing of headscarves in public places, including courts, government buildings, and, most controversially, schools and universities. The ban dates from the founding of the modern Turkish state back in the 1920s, but was not strictly enforced until the early 1980s. It was almost repealed in 2008, but concerns that lifting the ban would turn Turkey into an Islamic theocracy led to its quick re-affirmation. These tensions were once again ignited last October, when the Turkish first lady appeared in public with her head covered. Meanwhile, charges that the headscarf and the burqa (a veil that covers the entire face) are symbols of female oppression has motivated Western European countries like France to prohibit women from wearing headscarves in public schools and to ban the burqa outright. It has even inspired more general concerns that Western ideas of freedom and human rights may be opposed to multiculturalism

Cindoglu sees the issue differently, though. In Turkey, at least, she believes that banning headscarves in public places leads not to female empowerment, but oppression. The problem is that 70% of Turkish women wear headscarves, and most do not seem to do so out of coercion, but because they genuinely want to express their faith. Banning headscarves in government buildings and universities only has the effect of keeping women out of the halls of power. Worse, according to Cindoglu, the ban on headscarves in public also makes it almost impossible for Turkish women who wear headscarves to get decent jobs, even though there is no actual ban on wearing headscarves in the private sector, the workplace. Supporters of the ban, especially in the West, may believe they’re keeping women free, but if Cindoglu is right, they’re just preventing them from realizing their dreams of becoming political leaders and dedicated professionals who proudly wear the symbol of their religion.

Women wearing headscarves face discrimination before they even get in the door. Data that Cindoglu collected in Turkey shows that professional women who wear headscarves are rarely hired for prestigious jobs, mostly because employers are concerned that they will be unable to perform their jobs properly since they cannot legally set foot inside a school, court, or government building like the National Assembly. Obviously, women who wear headscarves can’t become teachers or lawyers, but they also struggle to perform as journalists (what if you have to interview a politician?), consultants (what if you need to do business with the government?), and other professional careers. If they are hired at all, they’re usually marginalized and confined to the back room, out of sight. Needless to say, these jobs pay much less than the jobs men can easily take, so that the average salary for women is only 6 to 7% of the average salary for men. Cindoglu was careful to emphasize that this widespread discrimination against women is due not to individual prejudices on the parts of employers (though that could certainly play a role), but to the structural conditions, namely the headscarf ban, that make wearing a headscarf a real liability in Turkey. It is this discrimination, she explained, that may explain the roughly-10% drop in employment among women in Turkey since the 1980s.

The lecture essentially turned into a panel when the Q&A portion started and Alice Kessler-Harris, a professor of history at Columbia renowned for her studies on women in the labor market, asked some pointed questions challenging some of Cindoglu’s central theses. Kessler-Harris wanted to know two things: does the headscarf represent patriarchal religious values that discourage women from working, and how does discrimination against women with headscarves lead to discrimination against all women? Cindoglu answered the first question by pointing out that professional women who wear headscarves want to work, their families tend to be supportive, and they do not see their religious piety and their desire to work as incompatible. In fact they often cite the Qur’an to justify their goals, explaining that “the Prophet’s first wife worked as a merchant and remained a merchant even after he became a prophet.” Answering Kessler-Harris’ second point, Cindoglu explained how discrimination against women with headscarves led to fewer women in the workplace and, from there, to viewing a lack of women in the workplace as “normal” for society, which made it tougher even for women without headscarves to be granted benefits like maternity leave, flex time, and equal pay. The audience was not entirely convinced, and Kessler-Harris in particular seemed to believe that the headscarf discrimination was merely a symptom of a more general misogynist trend in the Turkish job market.

Most of the other questions asked dealt with the history of the headscarf ban, but one woman, who was majoring in human rights and had spent time in Turkey, asked Cindoglu what needs to be done to solve the issue of headscarf discrimination in Turkey. After explaining it was anything but a simple issue, Cindoglu contended the first step had to be a repeal of the headscarf ban, followed by the passage of affirmative action legislation encouraging businesses to hire women. If not entirely convincing, Cindoglu did succeed in unraveling the knotty paradox of headscarf discrimination.

Image via Wikimedia