The headscarf controversy:

Gender equality and Islamic headscarves

posted by Joan Wallach Scott

In Turkey there is now a great deal of controversy about proposed revisions to the constitution that would include lifting the ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities. Many commentators have taken this to be an ominous sign of the intention of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, who represent the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to undermine Turkey’s secular republic in the interests of establishing an Islamist state. In Turkey, as elsewhere in Europe, the headscarf has become a symbol not only of political Islam, but of the oppression of women. When, in 2004, France outlawed the wearing of headscarves in public schools, for example, it was in the name of secularism and gender equality. The two were taken to be synonymous.

History, both in France and Turkey, contradicts the claim that secularism guarantees equal rights for women and men. The French secular state long denied women the right to vote and its civil code enforced male prerogatives over women in families until well into the twentieth century. The Turkish republic (a one-party state until after WWII) was inspired by the French republic (although it gave women the vote in 1934, ten years before France) and it modeled its penal code on Italy’s. Until that code was revised in 2001 (with the support of the AKP), women were defined as men’s property and rape was considered a violation of a male property-holder’s right. Ideas about family honor resting on the control of women’s sexuality are not unique to Islam, nor are they foreign to secularism.

The sharp opposition between the secular and the religious is a distortion of historical reality. Most of the secular states of Western Europe found ways to accommodate their religious majorities rather than banishing them; it is probably more accurate to speak of forms of Christian secularism than of the erasure of the public presence of religion. School holidays in secular France are Catholic holidays and the state supports the upkeep of churches as part of the national patrimony. In Germany, there is religious instruction in public schools. In these countries, Muslims have rightly wondered whether restrictions on their religious expression were a form of discrimination against a minority presence rather than a defense of the secularism of the state.

Although Muslims are a majority in Turkey, the question of discrimination has also been raised there. This time, it is new migrants to cities as well as residents of the countryside who are questioning the entrenched power of urban elites. The emergence of a multi-party system in Turkey is associated with breaking the hold of these elites, whose support for military authority in defense of secularism made them seem suspicious of, if not hostile to democracy. The multi-party system brought the question of religion—its representation and its practice—into play. The need to figure out an accommodation between a majority religion and democratic practice is not unprecedented in the history of European nation-states.

Allowing headscarves in universities may be one way of accomplishing this negotiation. It is especially interesting that the Prime Minister has explained the need to lift the ban as a way of guaranteeing all girls the “right to higher education,” a right that assumes not only equality with men, but among women of different classes and social backgrounds. For observant Muslim women—the majority, some 60% in Turkey—wearing the headscarf means many things, but one of its effects is to enable mobility and independence in the public arena; this means access to the education and jobs traditionally enjoyed by the minority of women associated with established secular urban elites.

It is important to note, too, that feminist groups in Turkey are divided on the question of the headscarf. They realize how complicated an issue it is in terms of achieving not only gender, but social and economic equality. They are not divided about other proposed changes to the constitution, however. These involve dropping the commitment of the government to insure equality for all (a hard won gain for women’s groups) and introducing language referring to women as a “vulnerable group.” These changes would bring back the laws that prevailed under the secular republic until the end of the 20th century; laws that subordinated women to men and confined them to the domestic sphere.

In Turkey there seem to be two separate issues at stake in the constitutional reforms. One is the restoration of male privilege, which would come in the form of revisions to the civil code. The other is the recognition of women’s rights, which would include the right of individual religious expression. Ironically, since the right to wear the headscarf has been defined as a woman’s individual political and social right, it could make the full restoration of male privilege difficult to justify, if not impossible to implement.

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3 Responses to “Gender equality and Islamic headscarves”

  1. avatar Gulesen Erin Uzun says:

    From the outside, one may view lifting the ban on headscarves as an act that restores women’s rights, the right of individual religious expression; but inside, the dynamic is a lot different. Headscarves are systemically being used as a political Islamic figure. I believe the lifting of the ban will reinforce men’s right to pressure their daughters, sisters and wives to wear headscarves, ultimately leading to the oppression of women in social life.

    Look at Turkey’s current first ladies, cabinet members’ wives; most of them were not wearing headscarves and were actively working before they got married. Shortly after marriage all covered their heads, quit their jobs and became housewives. If they were given a choice, would they really want to wear headscarves?

    As a young Turkish woman, this certainly is not something I want for the daughters of Turkey. Democracy and secularism go hand in hand with women’s rights, especially in countries where the dominant religion is Islam. And for that matter, Turkey continues to be one of the few examples in the whole world — certainly the only example in the Middle East — where the overwhelming majority of the population (99%) is Muslim, which is also a democracy and is *still* secular.

  2. avatar Ada Frak says:

    I have just one reply to the above post: with your own words: “If they were given a choice, would they really want NOT to wear headscarves?”

  3. avatar Susanna Kvam says:

    It is definitely no secret that Islamic headscarves are one of the most controversial topics involving Islamic tradition and gender equality in society; however, Joan Scott focuses this debate by linking it back an ongoing struggle between the religious and secular. The image of the headscarf has become a Western symbol of female oppression, especially in the Middle East, and because of this, many recent legislation has outlawed women the right to where a hijab in the public sphere. For example, in 2004, France outlawed the wearing of headscarves in the public schools, leaving in its wake a world-wide controversy surrounding the rights of women and religious freedoms.

    Today, there is current debate over whether or not Turkey should remove their ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities. Many argue that this legislation would be a step forward to encourage religious freedom for the minority religious presence, and work to eliminate feelings of discrimination of Islamic practices. This leaves many with the question: Is Islamic headscarf a symbol for religious freedom, gender equality, and secularism, or one of oppression and patriarchal dominance? Joan Scott argues that this legislation would represent a form of positive negotiation between the French government and Muslims, which would allow them to pursue a “right to a higher education” without feeling like they would need to compromise on their religious beliefs. This would promote gender equality, by providing equal education opportunities for both male and females.

    Personally, I believe Joan Scott makes many compelling arguments for the lifting on the ban of Islamic headscarves in universities; however, I do feel as though she fails to highlight the reasons why women choose to wear the Islamic headscarf. Although many people believe that the hijab is a requirement for Muslim women, it is never directly stated in the Quran itself. Veiling as an Islamic practice was a cultural practice before, during, and after the time of the Prophet, Muhammad, but was never a requirement for Muslim women. Many women choose to wear the headscarf, so they will be recognized solely for their intellect and personality, rather than their personal appearance, especially through the eyes of men. Although veiling has become a symbol for female oppression in certain Middle Eastern countries, the hijab still remains a liberating garment for many Muslim women, highlighting their own personal freedom and religious values. Overall, the Islamic headscarf should not be viewed as an object promoting female oppression or secularism, but as symbol of freedom and the option for each individual to practice religion according to their own interpretation or belief. France should lift the ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in universities, solely in the name of religious freedom.

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