The headscarf controversy:

New freedoms in Turkey — for whom?

posted by Jenny White

Turkey’s ban of the headscarf on university campuses — rather than the headscarf itself — has become a serious impediment to women’s participation in economic and professional life. Three-quarters of Turkey’s female population covers in some fashion.

The ruling Muslim-inflected Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) made a deal this week with the nationalist MHP in parliament to secure enough votes to eliminate the ban. The ban had been imposed after the 1980 coup by a secularist military suspicious of political symbols, although only fully implemented in the late 1990s. Now that the ban has been lifted in the name of religious freedom and freedom of expression, it remains to be seen whether those principles will be applied to other communities in Turkey, such as religious minorities and the Kurds.

In earlier decades, students tended to come from secular, urban backgrounds, so covering on campus was not an issue. These days, students are often second- and third-generation offspring of rural migrants. Their fashionable and eclectic styles of veiling would be unrecognizable to their mothers: a red OpArt headscarf paired with red high-top sneakers; see-through navy gauze with a jeans pant-suit; dayglo sandals and a multicolored net draped over a dark cap.

The electoral success of the AKP, now the majority government, and the economic growth of pious businesses since the neoliberal economic reforms of the 1980s have made the notion of ‘covering as empowering’ legitimate and possible. Until now, though, at the gates of the university, as in government offices, the scarf had to disappear. Some intrepid pious students coped by stepping into a booth or changing room by the university gates and – like superheroes– emerged wearing string caps or even wigs to circumvent the ban. Many others, though, were shut out from professional development and careers that require a university degree. It is instructive to those of us who instinctively see Islam as a barrier to women to see a Muslim government pushing through reforms that have given women greater rights and protections under the law and now access to education denied them by secularists.

Wearing a headscarf is anathema to the rigidly secular lifestyle envisioned in the early twentieth century by Turkey’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and guarded today by the Turkish state – the military, judiciary, educational institutions and their supporters that are now facing off against the lifting of the university headscarf ban by the Muslim-dominated government and its nationalist allies in parliament. There is also a sizable element of the population, mostly women, who fear that their secular lifestyles will be endangered on the presumption that what is allowed now will be required later. It is already galling to many that their prime minister’s wife covers her head in the signature tightly wrapped headscarf and to see the covered wife of Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, occupying the presidential palace. Because of Gül’s wife’s headscarf, she is forbidden by law to accompany her husband at official functions, creating continual protocol dilemmas for the government.

This past week thousands of anti-headscarf activists demonstrated in the streets and gathered at Ataturk’s tomb, warning that the presence of women with covered heads on campus will be the camel’s nose in the tent, the next step in the Islamicization of Turkish society. Before long, they argue, the headscarf will be allowed everywhere, girls will be pressured to conform and Turkey will become Malaysia.

Presidents and rectors of universities have come out against lifting the ban, arguing that it would lead universities away from rationality and reason. One rector went so far as to say he couldn’t be sure of treating covered students the same as other students if the ban were lifted. In response, thousands of university professors have signed petitions supporting the right of students to cover their heads, arguing that universities should be places where different beliefs, ideas and lifestyles should be freely expressed.

Not even recent revelations about state-sponsored gangs involved in assassinations and coup plots has raised public wrangling and outrage to this level. That is because battle lines are drawn not only between pious and secular Turkish Muslims, but between the dying old system and the new. The urban-based secularist elites who were in charge of Turkey’s direction and image for most of the twentieth century have lost ground as elections brought to power the pious majority, people who had formerly populated the countryside and lower-class squatter settlements, but are now reaching for a share of Turkey’s wealth and power. These many Turkish citizens may no longer be ignored as country bumpkins with headscarves. They are driving SUVs to the presidential palace. Many find this threatening and fear, perhaps with some justification, that a political party with no viable opposition is dangerous not only because it is Muslim, but because it cannot be stopped.

The Justice and Development Party has been aligning Turkey’s laws and institutions with those of the European Union, with an eye to membership, and has commissioned a new constitution that enshrines parliamentary democracy and human and individual rights. These innovations by their very nature undermine Turkey’s authoritarian institutions that in the eyes of many are the only safeguard of a secular lifestyle.

Some are questioning, however, whether the reforms spearheaded by AKP are meant to broaden only freedom of Muslim religious expression in Turkey, not freedom of expression for anyone else. Now that the headscarf ban has been lifted at universities, will the government turn to righting other wrongs or will it push on to lift the ban in schools and government offices? Will the impetus for reform of the constitution be blunted once the headscarf ban is lifted? There have been worrying indications of declining government commitment to the rights of non-Muslim groups in Turkey.

Those pushing for an end to the ban on restricting a Muslim woman’s right to education have been notably absent from demonstrations and discussions demanding rights for Turkey’s religious and ethnic minorities. Few covered women attended the eight-thousand strong demonstration in Istanbul on January 19 commemorating the one-year anniversary of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink’s murder by ultranationalists. Demonstrators called for justice. The trial of his killer and his accomplices has been marred by coverups, lost evidence, and harrassment of Dink’s family in the courtroom. The year before, a hundred thousand people accompanied his coffin to his funeral. The lack of representation from the pious community was striking. Hrant Dink was murdered because he was Christian Armenian and he wrote about about the killings of Armenians in 1915.

The AKP needed the votes of the nationalist, anti-minority MHP in parliament to lift a ban on headscarves. In return, AKP has announced that it is backing down from its minorities bill that would have, among other things, returned property and assets that had been confiscated from Christian, Jewish and other minority religious groups by the state. Since early in the Republic, minority religious foundations and their buildings and other assets were taken over by the government and these minorities were forbidden from repairing their remaining buildings or adding to them.

This reform is crucial for Turkey’s EU membership bid. The fact that AKP is willing to give it up in return for MHP support on the headscarf vote seems to indicate what many have feared – that AKP reforms are designed to support Muslim religious rights, but does not extend to broader religious tolerance and freedom of expression.

Protesting Dink’s murder and the lack of a proper trial for his killers, like the right of churches and synagogues to regain and repair their properties, are issues of religious tolerance and freedom of speech worthy of attention by those who claim to support elimination of the headscarf ban in the name of religious tolerance and freedom of expression. So are support for Kurdish language rights and open discussion of the killings of Armenians in 1915. In all of these issues, the government has made overtures, but failed to fully put its weight behind the necessary reforms.

Perhaps it is simply too many taboos to break all at once. The secularist military and judiciary, the university rectors and a sizable part of the population are against one or all of these reforms. As a result of a creeping, xenophobic nationalism, many Turks believe minorities (Armenians, Greek Christians, Jews and Kurds) are a Fifth column for a Europe out to weaken the Turkish nation or to divide it as they did after WWI. Liberal democratic laws exist in order to protect groups and individuals against the intolerant forces of society. But how does an elected government create such laws in the face of powerful and often intolerant special interests?

By allowing headscarves in universities, Turkey is making a leap of faith that democracy will guarantee tolerance. It is an experiment some are unwilling to countenance because they believe AKP’s democratic reforms are self-serving. The resounding din on both sides about encroaching Islam and endangered secularism has drowned out much-needed debate about the principles of democracy and the role of tolerance.

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One Response to “New freedoms in Turkey — for whom?”

  1. avatar Rod Chia says:

    A very informative and illuminating article. I have a couple of comments.

    “The AKP needed the votes of the nationalist, anti-minority MHP in parliament to lift a ban on headscarves. In return, AKP has announced that it is backing down from its minorities bill that would have, among other things, returned property and assets that had been confiscated from Christian, Jewish and other minority religious groups by the state.”

    As I understand it, for the above quoted passage, the MHP actually gained nothing from ‘backing down’, and that the AKP gained everything, or at least enough, by pushing through the change in the constitution. The AKP had bargained from a position of strength, and I don’t believe that they had lost anything by backing off from passing the minorities bill.

    Not that I would want illiberal nationalists like the MHP to ‘gain’ either. It’s just that if the lifting of the headscarves ban in universities is not complemented by other forms of liberalization in Turkey, then the (liberal) secular forces would would be worse for it.

    “This reform is crucial for Turkey’s EU membership bid. The fact that AKP is willing to give it up in return for MHP support on the headscarf vote…”

    I don’t quite see this. How is the AKP giving up the EU bid in return for MHP’s support in un-banning headscarves? Because – and correct me if I’m wrong – isn’t this constitutional change supposedly a step towards the so-called liberalization required precisely in order to join the EU?

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