How can I cover my head (and body as prescribed by Islamic Law)? (An interview with ÜMİT MERIÇ)

Meriç, who views the problem of headscarf from the perspective of a sociologist, also relates how she covered her head after the age of 53. From a historical view, it is seen that in this land (Turkey and its vicinity) women have covered their heads for a thousand years. Removing the head scarf has a history of at most a hundred years. So, if a question is to be asked, it should not be how they covered themselves, but why some removed the headscarf.

The public knows her mostly as the daughter of the great thinker Cemil Meriç. Not only as his daughter, but also as the writer of his books that her blind father dictated, as his secretary who read books to him, his aide, eye, hand, and the one to exchange ideas with. However, Ümit Meriç, aside from being her father's daughter, is one of the scholars of Turkey with her own identity, too, and an important thinker and scientist. Prof. Dr. Ümit Meriç worked as an associate professor and as a professor in Istanbul University, Faculty of Literature, for 30 years. At the oldest chair of sociology which was founded by Ziya Gökalp, she worked as the head of department and as the manager of the Center for Sociology Studies, being the first woman professor and chairperson.

In the year 1999, she asked for her retirement. She had to, because, while the whole Marmara region in Turkey was continuing to rock after the great earthquake on the night of 19 August of that year, she decided to cover her head. She had to choose between the two because she lived in a country where headscarf and being an academic are not reconciled. She opted for the headscarf. Ümit Meriç and I talked about her story of how she covered her head, but she saw it more important to explain her relationship to Allah.

- If you wish, let us begin with your personal story; having lived as a woman who did not cover her head till the age of 53, how did you cover your head?

Ümit Meriç: I was grown up without religious education and have passed an important part of my life as an agnostic. I am a sociology professor. I have thaught sociology for thirty years; in other words, I have tried to understand and help others understand the society. But in the end, I have come to such a point that what I have learned partly satisfied my mind but not my soul.

I have given thirty years of my life to sociology, but the result was, for the most part, frustration. I could not find answers to my basic questions about existence and I broke down spiritually. I was about to commit suicide; it was impossible for me to continue living like that.

What kinds of questions were these?

Ümit Meriç: Philosophical questions about existence and the meaning of existence such as whether the spirit existed beyond the body, the nature of the spirit, thoughts and fears of death, and fear to lose people close to me. I realized that for all these years, I have fed my body but not my spirit. My spirit found the solution to this hunger at the dawn of a great cirisis:
I decided to pray. It was 1997. Even in my first prayer, I understood the purpose of my existence. I explored Allah Who is in contact with me at each instant. This was like re-exploring America.

-When you explored Allah, did you get annoyed at science? Did you lose all your confidence in science, which let you down?

Ümit Meriç: Absolutely not. I like science dearly. Though I do not adore it in a positivist sense, and I see its weaknesses, I respect it in its weaknesses. However, science is a paranthesis about this world. I found answers to my questions in prostration. This is not a rejection of the intellect, but going beyond the intellect. Indeed, religion is above the mind, not contrary to it.

- Then, what became of your fears of death?

Ümit Meriç: I conquered them all. Now, I am very curious about death. For me, death is a new and greater experience; it will be the beginning of an interesting journey. For me, death will be a way of ascending and transcending; and my soul's being freed of the cage of body and its being saved from the limitations of time and space.

- You started to perform the prayers, but you did not cover your head then?

Ümit Meriç: Yes... Actually, I always took praying more seriously than covering my head. I found the peace in prostrastion much more indispensible. I did not think of covering my head at that time. For example, I thought of going to Pilgrimage but not of covering my head. I was an academic in the university, had a status in the society and followed a social life. Moreover, I was a woman who took good care of herself, and who liked adorning herself; I wanted to look beautiful to my husband and make myself liked. In other words, possibly as all these factors came together, I did not think of covering my head then. Up until the great earthquake in 1999...

- What happened in the earthquake?

Ümit Meriç: Let me explain thus: The reason for my starting to pray was the great earthquake in my soul. And the reason for my covering my head was the earthquake in nature. I was in Armutlu on the third night of the earthquake of 17 August. The small quakes that followed the great earthquake were continuing. We were sleeping in the yard. On the night between 19 and 20 August, I had a feeling that the doom would break the next day. After the night prayer, I wanted to perform an extra prayer with two raq'ats (parts of a prayer). I performed the prayer and then supplicated to Allah; I prayed Him to spare this world for us. At that moment, I felt ashamed. I was praying to Allah to spare this Universe, but was not obeying Allah's command, not covering my head. Just at that moment, from that night on, I decided to cover my head, and since then I have been covering my head. No one has seen my hair since. For some time, I wore a head scarf which left my throat uncovered. That was like a transition period. Afterwards, I started to cover my head as you see now. Now, my worst nightmare is to see my hair uncovered. In my dreams, I often dream of my head scarf being removed. I don't know what to do, try to cover my hair with my hands and clothes, and I try to escape, but can't. How I wake up with twists and turns, you can't guess!

Did it affect you psychologically to cover your head? For instance, thinking that you are not so attractive in the sight of the other sex as before and this thought's psychological effects...

Ümit Meriç: When I decided to cover my head, I was about 50 years old; in other words, that was a period when I did not need to give a message to the other sex. Actually, I never thought that head scarf annulled gender. I think that women are more beautiful with head scarves. Besides, even if my hair is covered, I pay atention to being well kept. For example, before having my photos taken, I felt the need to go and make myself neat. I made some make-up and applied rouge. I do not want especially that people say Ümit Meriç let herself go in her forties.

- You may think that women with head scarf are more beautiful, but the main idea of the head scarf is to hide the attractiveness of women and to prevent this attractiveness from provocing the other sex. What do you think about this main idea?

Ümit Meriç: I accept that covering one's body (as prescribed by Islamic Law) has such a side, but the purpose is not restricted to this. There is also the function of emphasizing the human identity by putting femininity aside. Think this way; if the purpose was only to disguise attractiveness, it would not be neccessary for women to cover themselves after the ages of seventy and eighty, would it?

- Let us now ask sociologist Ümit Meriç: What does the matter of head scarf mean from the perspective of society? How should it be evaluated?

Ümit Meriç: Rather than its sociologic meaning, its individual meaning concerns me more. To tell you the truth, I think that social evaluations are made too much nowadays, and that it is more important for individuals to evaluate their own covering of themselves. And I see the very-often-asked question Why do they cover their heads? as a wrong question. From a historical view, it is seen that in this land (Turkey and its vicinity) women have covered their heads for a thousand years. Removing the head scarf has a history of at most a hundred years. My mother is nearly the first generation who did not cover their heads. So, if a question is to be asked, it should not be how they covered their heads, but why some removed the head scarf.

- I understand, you question the insertion of such a norm. All the same, as women without headscarves are described as normal, it is asked of those who go out of the norm by wearing the headscarf; why they did so.

Ümit Meriç: Not everybody covers their head for the same reason. There is a group who cover their heads not actually for Islamic reasons; there are those who cover their heads as a custom, and those who cover in big cities having come from rural places, those who cover because of family pressure, and those who make headscarf an identity shield in order to be saved from the bombardment of the modernization which they could never wholly internalize and thus hide behind this shield. The last group is very heterogeneous. We see in this group those who cover their heads though not performing the prayers. However, covering one's head is not among the five pillars of Islam. One covers one's head, but does one get up for the morning prayer? And there are those who explore America, just like me, which is not restricted to Turkey, but a phenomenon experienced all over the world.

- Let us then talk about this last group...

Ümit Meriç: For those who are in this group, headscarf is neither a custom, nor a symbol, shield... It is something related to the relationship between Allah and His servant. It is high above both politics and democracy, is a matter far beyond all these. It is an existential matter. Being a democrat is important for this world, but is Islam like that? My democratic identity will stay in this world, but my Islamic identity is my identity which will continue after my death, too. I own my body and own the right to use it in a way wanted by Allah. Those who fall into this group explore Allah by going through different experiences, by living different intellectual adventures, by experiencing many ordeals, and by suffering many kinds of pains. I greatly value this kind of faith. This sort of faith and Islam is very strong and valuable.

With globalization, all over the world, there emerge more and more such people who become Muslim through such a process. This is because globalization make it easier for people to find one another, to get to know one another, and to interact with one another.

What do you think is the reason for the ban on head scarf in some countries in Europe such as France? Is it because there is a lack of democracy or because of a misunderstood secularism?

Ümit Meriç: This is because they are very much Christian. Europe is overly Christian. They still have a crusader mentality. To me, France needs another revolution. They need to learn again the three values of the French Revolution: freedom, justice, and equality. I am more hopeful about the USA. America did not have Crusades, aristocracy, and they experienced the matter of black people. Therefore, I am more hopeful of them.

You had to leave the university because of your headscarf, because it is said that it is against the secular state to wear headscarf in public places.

Ümit Meriç: Actually, I had already accepted the risk of leaving the university when I decided to cover my head. This loss was such a small one in comparison to my gains that I did not even think about it. However, this does not conceal the injustice of this ban. Let us first talk about the division of public area and private area. My private area is the area outside of the state's intervention area. This is not a description of a concrete place, but a notion. In other words, it is not only that the state may not intervene in my home. But it also means that the state protects my right to wander in a way that does not harm others.

Human firstly dwells in his/her clothes, and then in his/her home. All these are my private area. My body wanders; I wander.

As for the claim that it is against secularism; secularism is described in books of citizenship in elementary schools as the state's not intervening in religion and religious people. State does not have the right to intervene my body in above-state area. This is a right of mine about my life and my existence. This is a right of mine related to what Allah commands me to do. Neither my child, nor my neighbor, friend can intervene in that. My secular state does not have the right to intervene with me, and in my piety in which I believe. This is against secularism.

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