Feb 2, 2008

A Turkish Puzzle Ring

You may have missed the current kafuffle over headscarves in Turkey, in its way instructive on a number of topics. The much revered founder of the Turkish state, one Kemal Ataturk, was determined to drag his country kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century (as someone said of Ireland) and become a truly European type country, industrialized, secular, not dominated by Islam or ruled by greasy eunuchs. To make sure his heritage is preserved, the military keeps a watchful eye on everything, always ready to step in and throw out any government, no matter how popularly elected, that looks in danger of denting the secular Ataturk heritage, and is willing to issue rulings on quite trivial things, which rulings must, of course, be obeyed. The population has always remained almost entirely Moslem, and the military sees its job as making sure the division between mosque and state is preserved, and that some evil-doer doesn’t suddenly turn the place into an officially Moslem state, like Pakistan.

In pursuit of this aim, the military issued an edict some time ago forbidding women to wear headscarves in any public place, headscarves being standard wear for Moslem women. (The reasons for this are fascinating, and you may like to consult St. Paul on the subject, in his advice to women to cover their hair “because of the angels,” and Genesis on how the “sons of God beheld the daughters of men that they were fair,” which caused the kind of results you might expect from some red-blooded angels, and all kinds of problems, all caused by seeing women’s hair, apparently, but I won’t bother you with all that.) The military wanted to stop public display of Islamic symbols, fearing it might lead to worse excesses, and the young women studying to be lawyers, doctors, sanitary engineers, and television personalities suddenly found that they could either continue their studies, or continue wearing headscarves as they believed their religion commanded them to, but not both. The majority, being young and spirited, tended to say “Screw you, Jack, if I wanna wear a headscarf I’ll wear one, and you look pretty stupid in your ticket collector’s cap and that big belly, if I may say so” and were therefore banned from attending classes or even going in to the local municipal office or the public library.

The fact of complete military control over even minor matters is one of the reasons preventing Turkey being acceptable to the EU as a member. The other reasons are similar, and all of the conditions Turkey failed to meet explain why the EU felt able to resist enormous pressure from the USA to admit Turkey. (Not that it’s any of the USA’s business in the first place, of course. They would certainly be highly miffed if the EU tried to persuade them to grant statehood to Puerto Rico.) When a very pro-Islamic party was recently elected in Turkey to replace the geriatric incumbent, people wondered if girls would now be allowed to wear headscarves. No chance, apparently. The military has decided it’s too risky, and the girls will have to stay out of school if they won’t take them off.

Bearing headscarves and bearing children belong to different orders of magnitude, but a pro military regime which approves of controlling the one would definitely chummy up to another military regime which approves of controlling the other. The Turks, much feared for their savagery in battle, are responsible, by the bye, for a number of things we now see as distinguishing marks of Islam. Mohammed (PBUH), a junior member of a good merchant family, started life as a program manager for a company owned by a woman rather older than he was, who eventually proposed marriage to him, and he accepted. This should warn us his world was not what we’d now call Islamic. It was the Ottoman Turks who had the custom of “hareem,” and the sultan used to wander in, when fancy took him, to the separate palace where he kept all his nookie guarded by large guys with important items of equipment removed. He might actually tell one to report for duty that night, an almost unbearable honor, but probably he’d look at a few with interest and exchange a few words. Persons thus honored got to wear a badge saying “smiled at by the sultan” and the others had to kiss their butts and make their tea and so forth.

These Turkish customs became the model of correct behavior during the hundreds of years the sultans were the head of Islam, right down to the remote and dusty province at the extreme limit of their empire called Arabia. Those in between not quite wealthy enough to afford a separate establishment and eunuchs for guards tended to adopt the Syrian habit of sticking a bag over their head if they went out, and forbidding by law contact with any male except relatives. Still, most life went on inside, of course, and the typical Damascus house, all blank stone walls from the outside, looks terrific on the inside, all fountains, and gardens, and balconies. Your typical bedu would be convinced you were deranged if you suggested any such thing to him, of course. “Who the hell’s going to look after the goats?” If you think the women spend all day inside the tent painting their toe nails while the lads get the work done and haul in the tucker for them, you’ve never been in a large family.

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