Mary Dejevsky: Do these headscarves signal a retreat from Europe?

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In 2003 I revisited Istanbul after a gap of 10 years. The transformation was extraordinary. From a chaotic mega-city in which hawkers and battered buses vied for street space, and horns blared day and night, a recognisably first-world urban civilisation had emerged – exotic, to a Briton, only in the minarets punctuating the skyline, the calls to prayer and the now orderly bazaars.

Returning every year since then for brief stays, I have tracked the advances of that emerging first-world city in the superficial details that fleeting visitors notice. The traffic (mostly) stops for red lights. Central reservations are planted with flowers. Sanitation of restaurants is on a par with London or New York. International brands – alas – are crowding out traditional coffee-houses and boutiques.

On my most recent visit last weekend, internationalisation had taken another step forward. Starbucks and Benetton are now established brands; Harvey Nichols has arrived. More historic buildings are shown off under floodlighting by night. Street-cleaners drive their natty little electric carts with as much verve as their Parisian counterparts. More of what we visiting romantics might call local colour – regarded more often as shameful backwardness by those who live there – has disappeared.

This time there seemed to have been other, less predictable, changes in street life. My impression – as I say, it is just the glimpse of an occasional visitor – was that many more young women were wearing headscarves. These were not older women coming in from the countryside, but teenagers and chic young women-about-town, who wore their scarves, often in flamboyant colours, to complement their outfits.

My other impression was that there were fewer women in evidence, whether out in groups or by themselves . The macho pavement-behaviour of men, young and old, can be a trial for women anywhere in southern Europe. But it seemed to me that there were more young men more determined not to cede passage on a crowded street than when I was in Istanbul a year ago.

These are sweeping statements; the impressions are superficial. I may be wrong. And even if I am right – given that Istanbul is the most "European" city in Turkey – does it signify anything; should it be a cause for concern? An obvious interpretation would be that Turkey is reclaiming its past and perhaps, feeling rebuffed by Brussels, is engaged in a possibly permanent retreat from Europe. The recent elections, in which the AKP, a moderate Islamist party, was convincingly re-elected, could be cited as supporting evidence.

In fact, I doubt very much that the changes I observed, if they are changes, can be directly linked (either as contributory cause or effect) to the AKP, or to the subsequent election as president of Abdullah Gul – a man whose wife wears a headscarf.

What they may signify, however, is that – almost 70 years after the death of Ataturk – the identification of Islam with the sort of backwardness that could threaten Turkey's modernity is losing its validity for many Turks. Whether religion is at the heart of this or not, Turkey is at very least broaching a period of social and cultural transition.

My reason for being in Istanbul was a conference – organised by the British Council in conjunction with Turkish and British think-tanks – whose prescient title was, "The EU and Turkey: Drifting Apart?" And while Istanbul as a venue for such a discussion can be deceptive – its academics and journalists are instinctively orientated to the west – the sense of Turkey's internal social flux came across more strongly than any disappointment with Europe.

The country is embroiled in the preliminary drafting of a new Constitution, and some of the most contentious areas relate to the position of women. Should there, for instance, be something like affirmative action as a means of advancing equal rights, and should wearing a headscarf be permitted in places, such as colleges and state institutions, where it is currently banned?

Women's groups fear that legalising the headscarf would hasten what they see as creeping Islamisation. They regard it only as a symbol of female subordination, and believe that (male) pressure would soon be exerted to make headscarves the norm. But the opposite can be argued, too, as the ban means that well-qualified women who wear headscarves on principle are barred from higher education.

This is a conundrum that stems from the avowedly secular character of the Turkish state. And – rightly or wrongly – Turkey's secularism has been among the arguments that it, and its friends in the EU, have used in favour of its accession. Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights gave its own imprimatur to that secularism when it ruled that Turkey was entitled to ban headscarves in universities. One conclusion that Turkey could logically draw is that the more Islamic it appears, the less acceptable it will be to the EU.

Turkey's bare-headed women are right to see the headscarf issue as dangerous. Looking around the streets of Istanbul, it was easy to believe that headscarf-wearing and the subordination of women are related. Ideally, Turkey should be able to graduate from a society where secularism is enforced by law to a pluralist society where equal rights and headscarves can live comfortably side by side . Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that.