More than 100 Muslim women and men, 22 of them from GW, gathered in Lafayette Park Sunday afternoon as part of an international protest of a Turkish ban on head-scarves donned by women of the Islamic faith.
“On the 11th of October from Ankara to Istanbul about two million women protested hand to hand against a ban on scarves,” said GW junior Amina Chaudary, who participated in the protest.
Members of the Islamic faith in cities in Bosnia, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom spoke up for basic human rights, she said.
Protesters young and old marched and chanted in front of the White House as they flashed placards and an occasional peace sign.
“What do we want?”
“And when do we want it?”
Signs proclaiming “Muslim Women Have Rights,” “Damn Tyranny,” and “Ban the Oppression” peppered Lafayette Park from noon to 3 p.m. But many passers-by were uncertain of the reason behind the rally. Even after they were told, questions remained.
“What is it these people are fighting for?” asked one woman from Florida.
An integral part of Muslim culture is the wearing of the traditional head-scarf, said GW demonstrator Azza Elenan.
“Since the Islamic faith stresses modesty and chastity for men and women,” Elenan said, “I believe the head-scarf makes complete my beliefs, my way of life.”
Recently, however, the director of Istanbul University, Kemal Alemdaroglu, ordered an absolute ban on head-scarves within the university. Students with beards or head-scarves may not enter faculty campuses.
Muslim women have been turned away from their exams for refusing to take off their scarves.
The chief of the Institution for Higher Education in Istanbul, Kemal Guruz, went a step further, banning head-scarves at all Turkish universities.
Elenan said the 42nd article of the Turkish constitution states no one can be deprived of the right to an education. Turkey also has signed the European Human Rights Treaty, which states that the right to an education is fundamental and cannot be infringed upon.
Elenan and her peers said they were protesting a constitutional violation that directly affects their lives.
“We are sharing solidarity and support for our Muslim sisters in Turkey,” Elenan said. “(The demonstration) increases awareness. The right to choose to wear scarves is part of women’s freedom.”
“All Muslims are our brothers and sisters and part of our family in Turkey is hurting,” Chaudhary said.
At 1:30 p.m., protesters paused to bow and pray toward Mecca. Several tourists and residents questioned the validity of the demonstrators’ arguments and their right to be heard, leading to heated debates between activists and pedestrians about Islam and women’s rights.
“Islam forbids following a religion blindly,” said one demonstrator in response to a comment about blind faith. “Jewish women used to cover their heads. Catholic nuns cover their heads. We want the right to practice our faith.”
When asked about the symbolism behind the scarf, Elenan said it represents modesty. However, it is not meant to make women feel either inferior or submissive, which is a common perception.
“I don’t think my scarf makes me less than men,” she said. “Men relate to me more intellectually. It frees me from stereotypes. See me for who I am, not for how I look.”
Sabina Siddiqui, a senior at GW, said scarved women are mistakenly seen as oppressed, submissive and passive.
“I am so much more beyond my clothes, superficial things and material things,” she said. “Just look at the crowd. These are not passive women. Muslim women today are looking for a manifestation of what the scarves mean to us.
“They transcend superficiality and manifest femininity,” Siddiqui said. “We want legislation to reflect that. We are individuals with rights and freedoms.”
Following prayer, the activists listened to a greeting from one of the organizers of the event, Esam Abdallah.
“We must continue to support our sisters in Turkey,” he said. “We ask Allah to give them freedom.”
Demonstrators, including a number of young girls, read testimonies written by Turkish women who have been denied an education.
“Everyone who truly supports human rights will support Muslim women,” said one young girl.
“It is not the scarf but the Turkish state that cages women,” another demonstrator read. “We want to become doctors, lawyers and engineers, but we do not want to sacrifice our religious beliefs.”