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Turkey: Archeologist Claims Islamic Headscarf Derives From Sex Rites

October 31, 2006

Turkey has a strange habit of enforcing Article 301 of its penal code, which insults "Turkishness". This has been used to prosecute numerous artists, cartoonists, editors, and most famously, the Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. The law is often used by the Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to prosecute anyone who satirizes him.

The latest bizarre prosecution involves a 92-year old woman, female archeologist Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, who is being prosecuted for "inciting religious hatred" states the Jerusalem Post, the Australian, Web Islam and Middle East Times. Her alleged "crime" is that she has suggested that the "Islamic" headscarf originally derives from sexual rites from Sumer.

Cig's speciality is Sumer and Mesopotamian culture of the fourth and third millennia BC. Turkey is attempting to join the European Union, and this latest prosecution is another sign that in its current state, it is unable to allow freedom of expression.

Cig will stand trial in Istanbul on Wednesday (tomorrow). Her "crime" is that last year, she published a book in which she claimed that the headscarf was first worn by priestesses in Sumer who were initiating young people into sex, without being prostitutes.

A lawyer from Izmir, a city on the western coast of Turkey, filed a complaint. As a result, the eminent archeologist and publisher is charged with "inciting hatred based on religious differences." She could get three years' jail, if convicted.

Muazzez Ilmiye Cig is a staunch defender of the secularism which became enshrined in Turkey when Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in the 1920s, when she was a child.

She caused controversy last year when she wrote to Emine Erdogan, the prime minister's wife, who habitually wears the headscarf, even though it is officially banned from public institutions in Turkey. Cig asked Emine Erdogan to scrap her headscarf to set an example to young people.

Emine's husband and his party, the AKP or Justice and development party, has vowed to end the ban upon the wearing of the headscarf in schools, universities and state buildings. As a result, the headscarf has become a political issue.

On Monday, in the newspaper Vatan, Cig said in an interview: "She can wear whatever she likes at home, but as the wife of the prime minister, she cannot wear a cross or the headscarf."

Sumer and Sacred Marriage

So what is the history of the headscarf in Sumer? Goddesses depicted from the Sassanian dynasty in 3rd century AD Iran certainly wore hijabs, and also shalwar kameez, much like Muslim women today in Pakistan. Greek goddesses are often depicted with headcoverings, though these depictions are 3,000 years from the dawn of Sumerian culture.

Cig makes mention that the priestesses who wore the veil were not engaged in prostitution, separating it from sacred prostitution, which was common in the ancient Near East and continued in Tralles in Lydia up until the 2nd century AD (according to James Frazer in the Golden Bough). The tradition of a woman prostituting herself once in her life was tied to marriage. The Phoenicians practiced the custom: "It was the law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate." At Byblus, annually women shaved their heads to mourn the slain god Adonis, and those who did not remove their hair would have to be engaged as temple prostitutes. The money they earned would go to the goddess Tinnit.

The custom of sacred prostitution stems from the older cultures of the fertile crescent, and in Sumer, it ran parallel to the rites of the sacred marriage. This marriage involved the myth of the deity Inanna and her lover Dumuzi, a shepherd (though a fisherman in Sumerian king-lists). The sacred marriage persisted through to Babylonian times, when it took place between Ishtar and Tammuz.

In echoes of the later Greek myths of Persephone, and also Attis and Adonis, the myth behind the "sacred marriage" stems from a descent into the underworld, and the death of the goddess' lover. In the Greek myths, Attis the huntsman and Adonis were slain respectively by hounds or by a wild boar. Yet in the original Sumerian and Babylonian myth, the death of the lover was inflicted by Inanna herself.

The most complete version of the original text of the descent of Inanna can be found in the translation by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, from 1983. It can be found here. In brief, Inanna daughter of the Sun and sister of the moon, decides to descend to the underworld to gain power over the world of the dead. She gives up seven of her temples in parts of Sumer, ritually dresses herself, and descends to the underworld.

She passes through seven gates to reach the inner sanctum and as she passes through each one, an item of clothing is removed, and she stands naked before Erishkigal, the goddess of the Underworld, and the Annuna, the judges of the underworld. They pass judgement upon her, and she is "turned into a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, and was hung from a hook on the wall.'

Two sexless creatures are formed and sent to the underworld to "enter the doors like flies". They follow instructions and Erishkagal offers them their desire. They request the body of Inanna, sprinkle food and water of life on the corpse, and Inanna is revived. She still cannot leave the underworld, and must provide a substitute. She rises from the underworld with demons, who mutilate Dumuzi and Inanna gives her lover the "eye of death".

In the Babylonian version, when Ishtar descends to the underworld, she too passes through seven gates, and here she "removes her veil" at the fifth gate.

There is no accessible material on Cig's work available in English, but the "sacred marriage", where coupling is ritualized with the male becoming "Dumuzi" and the female becoming "Inanna" was indeed a practice of the Sumerians and Babylonians. Kings engaged in a "sacred marriage" ceremony to ensure wealth and well-being for the land, a reflection of the original "vegetation myth" elements of the Innana/Dumuzi legend. The notion of priestesses wearing a veil while initiating couples into the "sacred marriage" (pictured from a Sumerian artefact) is entirely logical.

Hair is seen to be sexual in other Fertile Crescent cultures, and in Babylon and Assyria, brides would be veiled. According to the Codes of Hammurabi (1780 BC), if a wife was infertile, a husband could take another wife, who would only be allowed "equality" while accompanying the first wife. This is taken by many Islamic commentators to refer to wearing the matrimonial veil. In Assyria, women were obliged to wear the veil. Prostitutes were forbidden from wearing the veil.

The Codes of Hammurabi make mention of the sacred prostitutes, who are called "sister of a god". The veil in Assyria "was a fashion accessory of the royal harem and the upper class. Prostitutes and slaves were forbidden to wear it, on pain of mutilation," states Damian Thompson in a Telegraph article.

There is dispute concerning whether or not the veil referred to a face-veil or a head-covering in Assyria, according to "Some Observations concerning Ancient Mesopotamian Women" by Beatrice Allard Brooks, American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Apr., 1923), pp. 187-194.

FINALLY....There is ample reason to suggest that the "hijab" or Islamic headscarf has antecedents which hail from thousands of years before Mohammed. Muazzez Ilmiye Cig is a 92-year old woman who has spent more time exploring the history, culture and archeology of Sumer than anyone still working. If she states that the hijab derives from the role of a priestess initiating couples into the role of the "sacred marriage", then she is almost certainly writing from a position of authority.

For some jumped-up prosecutor in Turkey to decide that her comments are inciting "religious hatred", it is an affront both to a respected archeologist's expertise and her experience. It is also a sign that Islam will take offense at anything that does not fit with its worldview. For modern Muslims, the time before Mohammed is dismissed as "jahiliyah" or "ignorance". This is not going to be a trial about historical truth - it is just another excuse to punish a woman with secular ideals. The justice ministry has the power to stop spurious trials. The fact this case is going ahead demonstrates that it is encouraged by the current Islamic government of Turkey.

UPDATE - November 1. Today Ms Cig had her day in court, states Associated Press via CNN News. She told the court: "I am a woman of science....I never insulted anyone."

Within an hour, the case was over. The court ruled in her favour and she was acquitted of the charge against her. Ismet Ogutucu of the Kaynak publishing house was also acquitted. The statement about the origin of the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, was made in her book "My Reactions as a Citizen".


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