Syrian women adopt Turkish hijab to integrate, avoid racism

Turkish girl wearing a colored Turkish hijab - April 6, 2021 (Hamra Turkey/Instagram)

Turkish girl wearing a colored Turkish hijab - April 6, 2021 (Hamra Turkey/Instagram)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

There are several ways for refugees to integrate into host societies or avoid negative discrimination, including learning and mastering the host country’s language or adopting its customs and traditions. This is what Syrians did after the 2011 revolution.

For Syrian women wearing hijabs in Turkey specifically, they found themselves needing a different approach to integrate into society and avoid bullying. The Syrian hijab is noticeable and makes them recognizable due to its different style compared to Turkish women, which led many to adopt the Turkish hijab. This contrasts with some Syrian refugee women in European countries who decided to remove the hijab to avoid potential “difficulties” under the label of “extremism.”

Therefore, it is natural to see a Syrian girl wearing a Turkish hijab and clothes, making her indistinguishable from Turkish hijabi women.

Changing perception

The wave of Syrian refugees to Turkey began on April 29, 2011, when the first group of 253 people entered through the Yayladag crossing in Hatay. The waves of Syrian refugees continued with the deterioration of the situation inside Syria, especially during the years 2013, 2014, and 2015. By 2021, the number of refugees in Turkey reached about four million under the temporary protection system, according to official statistics.

“I started with the Syrian hijab, convinced of it since my childhood, and never thought of changing my hijab style,” said Diana to Enab Baladi. Diana, a Syrian girl living in the city of Iskenderun in Hatay, changed her perception and thoughts about the Turkish hijab after living in Turkey for more than ten years.

Syrians are distinguished by different hijab styles, which makes girls more attached to it. Additionally, some Syrian provinces have specific hijab styles commonly used. For instance, hijabi girls from Damascus typically wear the two-piece white hijab, while women from Aleppo wear the black hijab secured with pins. The Turkish hijab, however, is colorful or patterned and is worn differently around the neck, being known for its simplicity and ease without pins.

The simple way of wearing the Turkish hijab involves folding a small layer, placing it in the middle on the head so that the lengths on both sides are equal, and then tying it at the back so it remains on the back.

When asked why she changed her opinion and started wearing the Turkish hijab, Diana said it made her feel more integrated into Turkish society, which she has desired since coming to Turkey from Aleppo in 2013.

Diana, who preferred not to mention her full name for personal reasons, explained that Turkish citizens treat Syrian girls differently when they wear the hijab in a Turkish manner. When they see their clothes and hijab similar to theirs, they react more comfortably.

Diana continued that she once worked in a clothing store, and the Turkish customer did not know she was Syrian until she mispronounced a word at the end of the conversation. She said, “It surprised the customer that I wasn’t Turkish, expressing admiration for me and my ability to succeed.”

Integrating into society through changing clothing styles has also been a primary goal for the young Syrian woman Hassna al-Khaled. She told Enab Baladi that speaking Turkish fluently was not enough to achieve her integration into her environment in Hatay, where she resides.

Avoiding racist situations

Hassna al-Khaled had her share of racist remarks and glances, affecting Syrian refugees in Turkey. This included what she experienced during her university studies from some Turkish students. Her hijab style indicated her Syrian identity even without conversation.

Hassna said, “I was sitting with my Syrian girlfriends in my university’s (Mustafa Kemal) garden in Hatay. We overheard some Turkish students walking toward us, talking about our uncomfortable or inappropriate clothing style.” She added that this incident was among the toughest racist criticisms she faced, where her hijab was described as “ugly.”

Diana and Hassna agreed during their conversation with Enab Baladi that Turkish people’s view in public places and on buses always differs if a girl wears her hijab like Turkish women. But if she dresses in Syrian style, it is very likely she will receive strange glances from both young men and women due to quickly identifying her nationality.

The beauty of Turkish fabrics and the quick and easy way of wearing the hijab were additional reasons that motivated Hassna to adopt it, especially as it is “beautiful, comfortable, and suitable for all places,” she said.

The hijab has been a controversial topic in Turkey over recent decades, an issue that girls have struggled with for years.

Turkey saw a significant turn towards the hijab in the 1960s and 1970s, prompting the government to crack down on it, fearing it would become a political symbol.

Several official decisions were issued in 1984 by the Turkish parliament, banning hijabi women from entering university campuses and prohibiting the employment of hijabi women in state institutions, amidst numerous harassment incidents against hijabi women.

The decision remained in place for many years despite popular protests until the Justice and Development Party took power in 2008, issuing a decree allowing female university students and state employees to wear the hijab.

The parliament also amended Articles 1 and 2 of Law No. “5735” and Articles 4, 8, and 148 of the Turkish Constitution, nullifying any decision restricting hijabi women’s freedom.

To avoid talking with Turks

There are more than 3.1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey under the temporary protection system. Some do not speak Turkish fluently, and Syrian refugee Diana (26 years old) falls into this category, getting tense sometimes when speaking Turkish.

Diana mentioned that when traveling from her city Hatay to Istanbul or Bursa wearing the Syrian hijab, she faced questions and inquiries from shop and restaurant owners as a way to start conversations, which she sees as “unnecessary and aimed at mocking her,” especially when they realize she cannot “arrange the sentence correctly,” continuing their talk and laughter, and asking why she has not learned Turkish yet despite living in the country for more than ten years.

The city of Hatay where Diana lives is known for many Arabs and Turks who speak Arabic due to their Syrian origins, which was one of the biggest obstacles in learning Turkish fluently. To avoid embarrassing situations, she found the Turkish hijab to be her savior years ago when her Turkish was weak, keeping her away from racist people who might mock her for not learning Turkish, she told Enab Baladi.

The trend of wearing the Turkish hijab among Syrian women has become more than a phenomenon, according to Hassna al-Khaled, who sees it as natural to adopt some customs and traditions of the host country. Especially since she has lived in Turkey longer than she did in Syria, noting that she does not see this as negative, particularly as it reflects positively on her and saves her from many potential problems.



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