You are here: American University School of Public Affairs News The Headscarf Divide

Contact Us

Kerwin Hall on a map

AU School of Public Affairs 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top


The Headscarf Divide Boren Fellow explores the politics of women's lives in Turkey

By  | 

Photo: Michael Fischer

Converging interests in politics and women’s issues, coupled with an eye-opening backpacking trip, led SPA doctoral candidate in political science Sarah Fischer to consider the complexities of the headscarf in Turkey.

The Iowa native became fascinated with the politics of the headscarf in Turkey while researching a course taught by her now-dissertation chair, SPA associate professor of government Diane Singerman. Fischer’s interest in the topic propelled to her second trip to Turkey, a semester-long exchange program during the third year of her studies at SPA.

Fischer arrived just after the temporary lifting of a law banning university students from wearing the headscarf. Thousands of secular Turkish women took to the streets to protest the repeal of the headscarf ban. The ban was reestablished six weeks later.

“I can really imagine myself on both sides of the issue. I can understand how secular women feel, being afraid that if the scarf is allowed everywhere, the country would become like Iran, where women are forced to wear the headscarf,” said Fischer. “And yet I could really sympathize with women who wear the scarf and want to go to university and don’t feel the two should be mutually exclusive.”

While researchers have already studied why certain women embrace the headscarf, Fischer wanted to discover the impact wearing headscarves has on women’s lives, particularly on their political participation. She is now back in the cultural and financial center of Turkey, Istanbul – this time on a prestigious year-long Boren Graduate Fellowship – interviewing women on both sides of the headscarf divide. And while the headscarf issue appears to separate Turkish women, Fischer is finding that the political lines are much less clear.

Fischer found that while some headscarved women support the AKP, the Islamist party that briefly overturned the headscarf ban in 2008, others do not, believing that the party’s promise to give more rights to headscarved women has not been fulfilled.

“Their political involvement stems from personal desire – to get an education, to have a career, to better themselves – rather than blind allegiance to a particular party," explained Fischer. Headscarved women are ostracized from many public arenas, including hospitals and courtrooms, an area which Singerman has encouraged Fischer to explore.

“Headscarved lawyers have been banned from court, and headscarved women are sometimes unable to testify on their own behalf,” said Fischer. She has also been interviewing lawyers to understand how the headscarf factors into legal cases.

SPA associate professor of government Todd Eisenstadt, a dissertation faculty advisor to Fischer, also helped shape her topic, encouraging her to think beyond regional boundaries. “Eisenstadt’s work on secularism and multiculturalism in Latin America has led me to examine cases I wouldn’t otherwise compare Turkey to,” said Fischer.

Fischer’s dissertation committee has encouraged the student to explore other important avenues for her work: funding, promotion and publication of her research. Fischer has already received a dozen fellowships, grants and other financial awards, and presented her research at numerous conferences. This summer, Fischer will present two papers at an international conference in Barcelona to focus on Middle Eastern studies.

Fischer hopes that her research leads to better understanding of the complex issues intertwined with this seemingly simple piece of cloth.

“The headscarf debate encompasses so many issues. It’s a clash between elites versus non-elites, rural versus urban constituencies. It’s not just what women can wear, but what kind of democracy Turkey wants to be.”