In the seventh grade, Abby Bowman wrote a research paper on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for the National History Day competition. The paper received first at the regional and state levels, and finally was awarded 8th place in the paper division among the 700,000 history projects at the national level. While Abby was visiting Washington, D.C., to present her paper, the ASA invited her to give a speech at the Turkish Embassy and meet the Turkish ambassador. Later, as a freshman in high school, the ASA sent her to Turkey for a week to live with a family there and experience Atatürk’s reforms firsthand. These events had a profound impact on her life, establishing a strong connection with Turkey and sparking a growing interest in international relations. Now a sophomore at Princeton University six years later, Abby is majoring in Near Eastern Studies with a focus on Turkish language and culture. She cannot thank the ASA enough for helping to transform one middle school paper into a lifelong passion.

Take an Ivy League school like Princeton—all its Gothic architecture, sprawling green lawns, and academic reputation—and move it to the side of a hill in Istanbul overlooking the glittering waters of the Bosphorus. Add a hundred or so adorable stray cats that pad around like they own the place. Welcome to Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most respected and selective colleges. The school offers a top-notch intensive Turkish language program that I attended for eight weeks this summer.

Every morning I walked the twenty minutes from my dorm to the main campus, narrowly avoiding death by Turkish traffic. Entering through the gates of the university on my first day, I noticed that many of the Turkish female students going to summer class were wearing head scarves.

This surprised me, since I had been reading in the news for months about Turkey’s ban on wearing head scarves on public property. Religious head coverings are common in Turkey, whose population is 99% Muslim. The restriction of such religious clothing has a long history in Turkey, reaching back to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s reforms in the early 1900’s. Atatürk believed that Turkey could not be modernized if the people held onto religious traditions that discouraged equality, especially between genders. How could the Turkish people succeed in the modern world if half of them were, in his words, chained to the ground? Atatürk was the first leader to ban the veil and the fez in Turkey, but not the last.

I was in for an even greater surprise when no one seemed to notice or care about the head scarves, not my professors nor even the guards at the gate. These women were literally breaking the law by veiling themselves on campus. Based on my knowledge from the American media, I expected the guards to swoop down and arrest the women on the spot. My first lesson that day was realizing how much I still had to learn about the head scarf issue, and about Turkish women in general.

Bans on head scarves are not the only challenge facing women in Turkey today. Domestic violence is an issue that is virtually ignored when compared to the interest surrounding the head scarves, and honor killings still happen every day in the rural eastern regions of the country. Women have come a long way since the dawn of the Turkish Republic, when the vast majority lived out their days as uneducated housewives. The Civil Code of 1926 took the first step in granting women equal rights in inheritance, custody, and divorce, as well as creating educational opportunities for women of every age and class. But there is still quite a distance to go.

Equal job opportunities and wages are also extremely important issues for the average working woman in Istanbul, yet the news media both in Turkey and abroad are fixated on the head scarf issue. There’s much more to these women—both those who cover their heads in piety, and those who oppose head scarves as a symbol of female subservience. In such a politically charged atmosphere, so delicately balanced between Muslim faith and secular government, how does the average Turkish woman go about her life: at work or at leisure, traveling through the country or protesting on the streets? As an average American exchange student who went about her life in the midst of Istanbul, I’d like to share my observations about the often bizarre and complicated situation of Turkish women.

———— This summer was my first time living in Istanbul, or any big city for that matter—I’ve lived in Des Moines, Iowa my whole life. About 3 million people call the state of Iowa home; in contrast, more than 11 million live within Istanbul’s boundaries. Founded around 600 BCE, Istanbul is the third largest city in the world. It’s also the only metropolis to span two continents; the Bosphorus Strait splits the city straight down the middle, with Europe on the eastern bank and Asia/Anatolia on the western.

Istanbul is a complex city in a complex country. I lived there for two months and was utterly unable to pin down the “average” Turkish woman, or even the average Istanbul woman for that matter. She seemed to shift from district to district, defying the expectations I’d developed based on my Turkish-American friends and the women shown in the media.

For example, in the Fatih district within the ancient Roman walls, women cover themselves from head to toe in the traditional black veil with only a slit for their eyes. I have never felt so naked as I did walking through that district, checking out Byzantine mosques in my t-shirt and jeans. A month afterwards, during a weekend trip to Bursa with one of my roommates, we were standing in line behind a similarly veiled woman with her husband and young son. I didn’t want to stare, so I looked at the ground. To my surprise, I saw jeans, trendy flip flops, and a toe ring peaking out of the bottom of the black fabric.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time in the crowded Taksim commercial district. There I saw many young women also wearing black, but in a quite different way. Black tank tops crisscrossed with black ribbons, black baggy pants with chains and studs, even black Metallica t-shirts. These girls were fully embracing the punk/goth style, complete with piercings and purple hair and skater boyfriends.

They contrasted sharply with the çitir women who go to Taksim to shop at Levi Jeans and Diesel. The word çitir literally means “crispy” in Turkish, but it’s also a slang term meaning something like “chick.” It refers to beautiful and sexy young women, usually in their 20’s, stereotyped as a bit naive and shallow for all their knowledge of fashionable clothes.

For the most part though, the clothing worn by women I saw daily on the bus or street seemed unremarkable, although perhaps on the modest side. Many wear a brightly colored head scarf with a stylish khaki overcoat or a long sleeved shirt and white pants. Others go uncovered and show off their red-dyed hair, quite a popular style. Another popular fashion is to wear t-shirts under tank tops or low-cut dresses, and skirts or shorts rarely rise higher than just above the knee.

This tendency towards modesty is exaggerated by Turkish society’s sometimes fierce protection of women’s honor. Four of my female (foreign) friends and I were heading off to Kapadokya one weekend. We didn’t have any bus reservations, but after pleading in our rapidly improving Turkish we were finally squeezed onto an overnight bus. The bus driver made a fuss over our fifth member who was sitting by herself next to a male stranger. We couldn’t understand at first, but it turns out that bus drivers will not allow a single female and a single male to sit next to each other when they aren’t married or family. It’s a 13 hour bus ride, everyone is sleeping, and the woman’s honor could be compromised. For a while it looked like all five of us would not be able to go, but finally we convinced him that we would switch seats and he let us stay.

The unique position of the Turkish woman, balancing modesty with independence under the pressure of a society that demands religious honor and secular nationalism, gives rise to some other bizarre circumstances. In my first week I noticed something out of place as I ate at the kepapçı restaurants near my dorm and shopped for a desk fan (a necessity in hot and humid Istanbul). In all the restaurants and stores that I entered, almost every single waiter and salesperson was male.

This seemed so bizarre to me, especially with a college campus just next door. Isn’t working as a waitress or grocery store clerk a common part-time job for female college students? As it turns out, attending a Turkish university is such a time-consuming venture that most students need all the study time they can get and take no part-time employment. The other women who would potentially fill those jobs from the poorer working class are more likely to be religiously conservative and thus usually required by their religious beliefs and/or their families to remain in the home.

The same society that makes it difficult for many women to work outside the home for reasons of religion and honor can also make life easier in other ways. For working mothers, no child care is necessary—their parents consider it their duty to watch their grandchildren while the mother is at work. Even single women receive an incredible amount of support from their parents that’s unheard of in most parts of the United States I’ve talked to 30 year old single women who still receive money from their parents.

To women like them, working at private companies, the head scarf issue has no direct relevance to their lives. They want to hear and discuss more pressing issues like unequal pay and glass ceilings. And as more and more women are motivated to vote for candidates who support women’s rights, they are gaining more control over which issues the politicians talk about.

Turkish women have a long history with political participation. As part of Atatürk’s reforms, they gained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1931, only ten years after American women did. Three years later, they could vote in national elections and run for office in the National Assembly. Their sisters in France weren’t able to vote until ten years later; the Italians and Canadians had to wait much longer.

This summer I ran into a group of female protestors, some covered and some uncovered, marching through Taksim Square. I asked them what they were protesting, expecting something related to the head scarf issue. Instead, they informed me that the government had recently censored a controversial TV station for working class viewers. Yes, the ban on head scarves is an important one in the greater political debate over just how secular Turkey’s democracy should be. But as far as Turkish women’s rights go, it’s not the only problem on the table.

As I came to learn over the summer, a veiled female college student presents one of the most controversial and politically loaded images in the Turkish media. She symbolizes the intensifying struggle between two factions fighting to determine the future of the country. To the rising religious popular movement, a head scarf is only a harmless demonstration of an individual’s sincere religious beliefs. To the secularists of the old establishment, the same head scarf is not only a roadblock in the pursuit of gender equality but an active threat to Turkish free society and secular democracy.

Let me give a little background on the issue. The veil has been officially illegal to wear on public property since the 1990’s. Just this February the majority party, Justice and Development (AKP), passed a law allowing women to wear veils on college campuses. This sparked a fierce debate over the Islamist nature of the AKP, and whether the secularism of Turkey is in danger from its heads of state.

In June, the Court declared the law to be anti-secular, reinstituting the ban on head scarves. The local Turks all predicted that the AKP would be disbanded by August for unconstitutional actions. Over coffee I asked one of my conservative Turkish college friends whether he thought that dissolution of the AKP was the best solution. My friend replied rather gloomily that the AKP would just return under a different name with different leaders; a court decision against the party would only help to rally support for the Islamist movement.

Back in June on my first day of class, I asked one of my professors how students on the Bogacizi campus could safely wear head scarves when the court had just banned them. She laughed at my concern and explained that most of the time, no one really cares if female students cover their heads or not. Enforcement of the law depends on the preferences of individual professors and college administrators. It only seems to matter during final exams, when the government sends a representative to check ID’s outside exam rooms. Female students wearing head scarves are not allowed to enter the room and thus could fail their finals and courses. In situations like this, conservative women usually just wear a wig over their real hair. No problem for the student, no problem for the university and government.

On another hot Istanbul night, I was eating out with a couple I knew and some of their Turkish friends. I asked two of the women—heads uncovered, working at banks, unmarried with boyfriends, about 30 years old—how they felt about the head scarves. One said she thought the government should be more flexible and allow women more freedom to wear what they wished. The other was more uncomfortable with the idea. She saw the head scarves as deliberate Islamist political statements, implying that since they weren’t really religious accessories the government had ample room to ban them. This seems to be the crux of the issue: the Turkish democracy has always had some trouble allowing opposing viewpoints to be heard, especially if those viewpoints run against the secularist tradition defended since Atatürk’s time. The issue is more about the degree of permissible political freedom than that of religious freedom.

In late July, the Court made an extremely close decision to allow the AKP to get off with just a large fine and a serious warning against further Islamicization of the government. There won’t be any military coups this time—Turks are going to have to compromise and work out the exact nature of their government, respecting both their public secular tradition and their personal religious identity. As we move through a time of uncertainty in the area of women’s rights, it is more important than ever to pay heed to both Atatürk’s vision and his legacy. His vision: that every Turk, male or female, Muslim or agnostic, rich or poor, would stand as equals before the Turkish government and together represent Turkey to the world. His legacy: reforms in women’s rights that rivaled or exceeded those in Europe, and a system of governance both secularist and successful that set an example for its neighbors. As in today’s America, secularism in modern Turkey seems to be wavering and undergoing redefinition as cultural and religious forces tug against our hallowed traditions. The Turks are not alone in their struggle to find the balance.