by Radko Popov; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Stupidity and fundamentalism threaten to destroy traditions of both Orthodoxy and Islam

to veil or not to veil.jpg

"She probably studies medicine," a young man says to his friend as their eyes appreciatively follow the pretty girl in a headscarf as she crosses Dzhumayata, Plovdiv's central square.

This presumption is probably correct as the Medical University in Plovdiv attracts students from Turkey who don't feel they can comply with the ban on wearing headscarves in educational establishments in their native country.

However, since the beginning of September this young woman, if she were indeed one of those medical students and not a member of the local ethnic Turk or Pomak communities, won't have been allowed to enter lecture halls or laboratories with her head covered.

This is the result of a decision made by the rector of the university, Professor Georgi Paskalev, the Minister of Education Daniel Valchev and the Minister of Health Radoslav Gaydarski. They cite the Higher Education Act, which states that education is secular and should not be governed by ideological, religious or political doctrines.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the wearing of religious symbols in public has sparked a real debate in Bulgaria, but it has given government institutions, school principals, university rectors and self-professed patriots something to make some acrimonious noise about.

The topic first surfaced in the media as a news item about what was going on in France. The argument then moved onto local soil with a complaint by two female students at a secondary school in Smolyan, southern Bulgaria, who claimed they felt discriminated against by school uniform requirements.

When the discussion moved on to the general acceptability of religious symbols, including the overt display of crucifixes by Christians, or cassocks by priests studying in theological faculties, one couldn't help thinking that it must have been music to the ears of former party functionaries and retired colonels of the aggressively atheistic Communist regime.

Communism had already had plenty of experience in dealing with Bulgarian Muslims covering their heads. During the so-called Revival Process and the forced changing of the names of over a million Bulgarian Muslims in the mid-1980s, overzealous functionaries in some areas of the country forbade schoolgirls to wear headscarves or to braid their hair. Some time earlier, in the first years of the Communist regime, baggy trousers had also been banned. There have been, however, periods of tolerance in modern Bulgarian history too. In the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forbade men to wear fezzes, women to wear yashmaks, and imams and priests to wear religious attire, Bulgarian Turks were free to wear clothes that carried religious symbolism.

When talking about Muslim headscarves, those holding forth seem to consciously omit the small, but significant, detail that a similar practice exists in Eastern Orthodoxy. The issue is discussed several times in the Old Testament and on one occasion in the New Testament. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul advises Christian women to pray with their heads covered, as "any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head." (1 Cor. 11:5).

According to the interpretation adopted by Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians, Serbs and Greeks, the Catholic Church and the major Protestant denominations, Paul simply mentions a Corinthian custom used to distinguish between decent Christians and dissolute women.

But for the Russian Orthodoxy, Anabaptism and other radical Protestant sects, wearing a headscarf is a symbol of piety. Because globalisation does not stop at material goods, like jeans and hamburgers, but concerns religious symbols as well, under Russian influence some Eastern Orthodox girls in Bulgaria began covering their heads when going to church.

It is another matter to what degree hidden hair is an expression of devotion if its owner attends a divine service wearing a mini skirt.

If Eastern Orthodox churches argue about whether the headscarf is a local cultural custom or something that should be accepted as doctrine, in Islam it is a religious standard.

The Qur'an explicitly orders this in Sura 24:31 and 33:59 and so do several Hadiths in Sunna. The arguments among the four conservative schools of the Shariya focus on the question of whether women should also hide their faces or not. The apathy in the debate on headscarves in Bulgaria shows that there are hardly any grounds here for either the French type of secular fundamentalism, the Russian brand of outward piety or the Arabic Wahhabism.

After seven centuries of coexistence in the Balkans, the Islam professed by Turks and Bosnians, and the Eastern Orthodoxy followed by Bulgarians, are marked by more moderate views on faith and its symbols. If there is ever going to be something like "European Islam", it should be established on this basis.

The peaceful coexistence between the secular and the religious is not impossible. You should have seen the approval in the boys' eyes as they looked at the beautiful medical student in Plovdiv. Indeed, they hardly noted the headscarf.

Hijab-ing It in Vogue

The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf wrapped around the head and tucked at the shoulders

The Al-Amira consists of a close fitting cap and a tube-like scarf

The jilbab is a body-length outer garment

The khimar covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear

The chador is a fullbody cloak

The burqa covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen tosee through

The niqab leaves the area around the eyes uncovered

No ban on Islamic dress, but schools are allowed to impose a dress code

The German Constitutional Court has ruled in favour of a teacher who wants to wear headscarves during lessons. However, local authorities can impose bans. The Federal State of Hesse bans teachers and civil servants from wearing headscarves at work

Headscarves are allowed at universities but not at schools

Politicians in the North resurrected ancient laws originally designed to ban the wearing of carnival masks to encompass the wearing of burqas. Furthermore, parliament approved an anti-terrorist law making hiding one's features an offence

Scarves are banned in civic spaces, including state or private universities, schools and official buildings

Under Communism, the treatment of various minorities, including religious groups, has at best been ambivalent. Following reprisals against the country's ethnic Muslims in the 1950s and 1960s, the culmination came in the mid-1980s, when Turks were forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to change their names to Slavonic ones. This severe religious and social persecution led to the "Great Exodus" of 1989, the biggest movement of people in Europe since the Second World War. Over a million Turks left for Turkey, causing a severe crisis in the economy that foreshadowed the fall of Communism in November 1989. Currently, there are no legally binding rules in Bulgaria concerning the carrying or wearing of religious symbols


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