Turkey is not the only country where women face harassment over religious attire. A 2012 Pew Research study finds that women have been harassed for violating religious dress codes in an increasing number of countries. In recent years, the share of countries where incidents have been reported has more than doubled, from 7% in mid-2007 to nearly one-in-five (19%) in mid-2010 (see chart).
Women’s headscarves are indeed a sensitive issue because they can involve both social hostilities and government restrictions. For instance, in Turkey, wearing a headscarf is prohibited in public-sector jobs as well as public universities reportedly to safeguard Turkish secularism. Such restrictions are part of many others imposed by the Turkish government on religion, which, when taken together, place Turkey among a group of 50 countries with high or very high government restrictions on religion.
Specifically, as shown in the chart, women are harassed for breaking religious dress codes in 34% of the 50 countries with high or very high government restrictions. By contrast, women are harassed in only 9% of 94 countries with low government restrictions – nearly a fourfold difference.
Harassment over religious dress codes takes various forms. For instance, in the recent Iranian elections, women were expected to cover their hair when voting, including those voting at Iranian embassies abroad. Moderates, whose candidate won the election, were sensitive to criticisms by or backlash from religious conservatives and sought to avoid any campaign footage of women attending rallies with their hair showing.
In Nigeria, public sentiments against Muslim headscarves have been on the rise in the mainly south-west non-Muslim area of the country, with public schools prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing the hijab.
In March, a woman fired by a private employer in France for wearing a Muslim headscarf was reinstated by a higher court, triggering fears for more backlash against the country's minority Muslim population.
At times, minority populations attempt to enforce dress codes on their own members. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Islamic extremists promoting sharia law have threatened women who don’t wear headscarves with violence and even death.
An investigative report aired in May shed light on the situation faced by many women in Egypt, the Middle East's most populous nation. The Associated Press reports:
Waleed Hammad dressed conservatively for his secret mission into the world of sexual harassment and abuse on the streets of Cairo, donning a long tan skirt and sleeved shirt. The 24-year-old actor walked the sidewalks, hidden cameras in tow, for an investigative television report.
Initiatives to counter the problem have mushroomed in recent months. Vigilantes groups have started protecting women at gatherings, particularly at large protests or during national holidays when groping and harassment in crowds is at an all-time high. Activists have offered self-defense classes for women. Social network sites have been started where women can "name and shame" their harassers.
On the other side of the debate are conservative religious clerics and some government officials who blame women, saying they invite harassment and sexual abuse by mixing with men. Read the full story.