I spent most of today walking around in Istanbul, or riding a bus from one part of the city to another. It is impossible to do this without thinking about Islam, secularism, modernity and the paradoxes of this tense nation. This leads, of course, to meditations on the meaning of the various forms of head coverings chosen, or rejected, by Muslim women.
There is no way around this. There is no way for a journalist to avoid this issue here.
Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson -- yes, that Gerson -- is attending the same conference here in Istanbul that I am and he used some gripping language on this subject in the piece that he filed from here a day or so ago. Check this out for a strong metaphor:
ISTANBUL -- Here in Turkey, the matter of headgear is taken seriously. An edict in 1925 forbade the wearing of the fez, causing millions of Turkish men to don bowlers, which were seen as more Western and secular. In 1982, the government of Turkey banned the wearing of headscarves by women in university classrooms -- a symbolic statement that Turkey would not be taking the route of the Iranian revolution across the border, which mandated the veil. But colorful headscarves are common on the streets here, worn in piety and protest. And the resulting headscarf debate is the Turkish equivalent of the American abortion controversy -- heated, culturally defining, admitting no compromise.
I am not sure I would go quite that far. But it is certainly true that this topic seems to come up every time that you talk to a moderate Muslim in Istanbul, whether they live here or are just visiting. The topic is in the air and everyone knows that it is a symbolic issue that stands for larger questions looming in the background.
Secularists care about it. Devout Muslims care about it. Political "secularists" who are also devout Muslims care about it.
To step into this subject even deeper, check out an edgy first-person piece in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Megan K. Stack titled "In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil." Here is the we-warned-you subtitle: "As a woman in the male-dominated kingdom, Times reporter Megan Stack quietly fumed beneath her abaya. Even beyond its borders, her experience taints her perception of the sexes." So there.
Obviously, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is not Istanbul, Turkey.
Still there are sections of this story that show -- from behind this Western set of eyes -- why this is such a hot-button subject. Here, she talks about her arrival a few years ago:
I was ready to cope, or so I thought. I arrived with a protective smirk in tow, planning to thicken the walls around myself. I'd report a few stories, and go home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there, would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.
I'm leaving the Middle East now, closing up years spent covering the fighting and fallout that have swept the region since Sept. 11. Of all the strange, scary and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains among the most jarring.
I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?
Ah, so some cultural values are right and some are wrong? Is that a moral absolute? Does this doctrine apply to other moral, cultural and religious beliefs, in America or abroad?
How will the press cope? Will multiculturalism apply to this issue and others that grow out of it?