‘Before’ and ‘after’ photos women in Turkey posted on Twitter as part of #10YearChallenge. (Source: Bianet)

When 18-year-old Pınar decided to take part in the popular #10YearChallenge – in which people post current pictures of themselves on social media alongside an old photo – the reaction stunned her.

In the 2017 photo the textile worker posted on Twitter she was wearing hijab; the new one showed her bareheaded. She received a surge of scathing criticism from complete strangers as well as members of her own family.

Pinar, who lives in southern Turkey and asked to remain anonymous for fear of further public censure, immediately deleted her Twitter post.

Nonetheless, she insisted that she had no regrets about removing her headscarf and remained deeply committed to her Muslim faith, adding, “I am happy living like this.”

Pınar began wearing a headscarf when she was 12 to please her family. However, two years later, she realised that she was unhappy and told her parents that she wanted to remove her hijab. They refused to grant permission.

“I started to work two years ago, and that is when I realised that I would never be happy wearing a hijab,” she said. “Every night, when I came home from work, I would talk to my parents about it and tried to get their approval for taking it off, but it always ended in quarrels. After one such quarrel, I just took off my headscarf and never wore it again.”

Pınar’s advice to other women who want to take off their headscarves is simple.

“Be determined and never give up,” she said.

Popular with celebrities and social media users worldwide to demonstrate how much they have (or have not) changed in the last decade, the #10YearChallenge has had a particular impact in Turkey.

A swathe of women have taken the opportunity to share photos of themselves before and after removing their hijab and thus spark a wider debate about Islamic dress.

Hijab has long been a controversial subject in Turkey. Banned in schools, universities and public institutions for decades, restrictions were gradually lifted after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Women wearing hijab now have more freedom and greater opportunities in the fields of both education and employment. But secular Turks accuse the government of pressuring women to wear headscarves as part of the general trend towards adopting a more conservative interpretation of Islam.

In March 2011 Süleyman Demirci, then an AKP official in Ünye district, said, “Women who are not covered are like a house without curtains. A house without curtains is either for sale or for rent.” Demirci was later forced to resign due to the public outrage caused by his statement.

Gülsüm Postacı, 34, also shared photos with and without a hijab as part of #10YearChallenge. She explained that, unlike many other women in Turkey, she started wearing a headscarf when she was 14 not because of family or social pressure but of her own free will.

She felt so strongly about the issue that during the 90s she took part in protests against the headscarf ban in Turkish universities and public institutions. Today Postacı declares herself to be an atheist and fights to be accepted as such in a conservative and religious society.

Gülsüm argued that wearing hijab has become the central point of male-dominated politics in Turkey and a core tool of control over women.

“The issue of the headscarf is highly politicised but, ultimately, it is women who should decide on whether to wear it or not,” Gülsüm said. “We cannot let men make that decision for us.”

Women living in more conservative and rural areas of Turkey often have little choice in the matter. That was the experience of Özlem, Derya and Burcu, three sisters aged between 18 and 24 from the deeply traditional city of Elazığ in eastern Turkey.

Özlem and Derya are university students, while the eldest sister, Burcu, is unemployed.

At their mother’s request, Özlem and Derya adopted the headscarf aged 12 and 13 respectively, but as they grew older they realised that they were unhappy.

They finally took their hijab off when they left to study in Istanbul. They said that their greatest support in that transition period was their father, who lives in Spain.

“We are not active social media users, so we did not take part in [the #10YearChallenge]. But if we were, we would share our “before” and “now” photos with pride,” Özlem said.

The eldest sister, Burcu, also stopped wearing hijab for a short period when living in Spain with their father. But when she returned to Elazığ, she started wearing it again.

“Elazığ is a very closed-minded city,” she said. “People who live there think that they have the right to interfere with other people’s lives. The main reason why we had to start wearing headscarves in the first place was not the religion, but this city. Our neighbours put pressure on our parents, so they made us wear hijab.”

But Burcu said that wearing hijab now was her own choice, and not the result of that pressure.

“After all this time, I cannot exist without wearing it. I am happy with my headscarf,” she said, adding that she respected and supported her sisters’ choice to stop wearing hijab.

However, social attitudes will take longer to change. Whenever Özlem and Derya visit Elazığ, they put their headscarves back on, to protect themselves from neighbourhood gossip.

Özlem explained, “We don’t want them to think that Istanbul has led us astray and that we stopped wearing hijab just because we live there now.”