The headscarf controversy:

The headscarf and citizenship in Turkey

posted by Ayse Kadioglu

In Turkey, the headscarf is usually taken as an emblem of tradition and backwardness, and its removal from public life is associated with modernization and progress. Such an approach to the headscarf turns the issue into an insoluble problem. Some of the secularist elite in major Turkish cities are critical of women with headscarves in their immediate environment. I use the expression “secularist” instead of “secular” in order to point to an attitude geared towards converting everyone into adopting a secular lifestyle that ironically includes being religious, albeit under the supervision of the state.

Interestingly, there are two different styles of headscarves: the traditional one is called başörtüsü, and is worn by women who are considered “peasants” even though they live in big cities. They usually work as maids who clean houses and care for children. They are not viewed as dangerous due to their subservient stances. On the other hand, the modern headscarf —called türban—is worn by university students in major Turkish cities. These women claim full citizenship and seek employment in competitive job markets. They show up in the urban cultural milieu such as art exhibitions, concerts, coffee houses and restaurants in their openly religious costumes. They are criticized by the secularist, urban elite for trespassing into a modern territory while dressed in costumes that signify backwardness. In spite of their visible demands, urban women with türban have been unable to become “full” citizens in Turkey in terms of civil, political, and social rights.

Women with headscarves as harbis

In the Ottoman society, there were two expressions that were commonly used in referring to the non-Muslims. First of all, there were the dhimmis, meaning those non-Muslims who did not seek independence from the Ottoman rule and who were loyal servants of the state. Secondly, there were the harbis who were fighting for their independence from the Ottoman state. The latter were determined to become actors who wanted to define their own destiny. The dhimmi Greeks, for instance were referred as “Rum,” indicating their subservience to the Ottoman state, whereas the harbi Greeks were called “Yunan,” indicating their wish to become independent actors. It is my contention that, today in Turkey, the traditional women with başörtüsü are viewed as dhimmis, whereas the modern women with türban who seek to become full citizens are characterized by the secularist elite as harbis. In fact, while the latter are depicted as dangerous actors who are adamant about seeking their citizenship rights, the traditional women are increasingly finding their headscarves less and less tolerated as well. The superintendents of apartment buildings in some high-income neighborhoods, for instance, are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their jobs if their wives and daughters are wearing headscarves. In sum, the current polarization over the headscarf issue in Turkey is such that, even the traditional women with headscarves are increasingly seen as dangerous harbis.

Turkish modernes de robe

The early republican elite in Turkey showed a great distaste for religion. They tried to diminish the religious outlook of women by embracing Western dress codes. In the end, a Western outlook became much more important than many other attributes of modernity. Despite the existence of a women’s political movement, which was led by a female activist named Nezihe Muhiddin in the 1920s, women activists were thwarted by pressures from above. Hence, all of the major rights conferred upon Turkish women were the result of the efforts of the male revolutionary elite who had the goal of elevating Turkey to the level of Western civilization. Even though the early republican reforms encouraged women to participate in the public realm, especially as teachers and nurses, women’s primary responsibility remained within the private domain as good wives and mothers. The early republican reforms opted for creating an image of the modern Turkish woman as honorable, chaste, enlightened and modest. These virtues suppressed women’s individuality and sexuality, while highlighting their Western outlook.

In Turkey, modernization came to mean, first and foremost, a Western as opposed to an Islamic appearance. The women who became products of the early republican reforms were similar to the noblesse de robe (nobility by virtue of clothes) of pre-revolutionary France who joined the ranks of the nobility by purchasing offices and putting on aristocratic attire. Early republican reforms included efforts to change the appearance of the Turkish men as well. Republican Turkish men were expected to wear modern hats in place of the Ottoman fez after the acceptance of the “Hat Law” in the parliament in 1925. I argue that women who were adamant about a Western outlook in early republican Turkey became modernes de robe; they wore Western clothes and adopted Western codes of conduct, yet remained quite traditional, especially regarding relations with men and their self-perceptions within the confines of the family. They represented simulated images of modernity. Their clothes symbolized the political ends of the male republican elite. Hence, a state feminism instigated from above had led to the delay of a feminist consciousness on the part of these women. The secularist elite women opposing the headscarf in their life spaces are mostly the daughters of these early republican women who placed great significance on a Western appearance as an emblem of modernity.

Secularization as a project

In most Western societies, the secularization process accompanied modernization. As societies became more modern, they became more secular. In Turkey, secularization did not accompany modernization, but rather, became a project in order to realize the goal of becoming modern. The headscarf came to represent its nemesis. It is this view of secularism as a project that turned the issue of the headscarf into such a politically sensitive matter. The headscarf came to represent the very opposite of the goals of the Turkish Republic. Today, the demands for full citizenship on the part of the urban women with headscarves are portrayed as a challenge to the republican regime. In the end, the predicament of Turkish democracy is reduced to a tension between a political regime crisis on the one hand and a rights discourse on the other. For the secularist elite, such a rights discourse constitutes a threat to the political regime. Therefore, it is not surprising that today the presence of women with headscarves in the urban, modern setting is seen as a major threat to the continuity of the republican regime.

The urban women with headscarves primarily demand greater education rights. The initial ban on the headscarf in higher educational institutions was enacted in the aftermath of the military coup in 1980. In 1988, the civil government tried to lift the ban by adding an article to the Higher Education Law that indicated that women could wear headscarves in university campuses for religious reasons. This article was abolished by the Constitutional Court in 1989 on the basis that the Constitution does not allow such referrals to religion in law.

The issue became politicized in the aftermath of 1997, when the Turkish military defined Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest enemy of Turkey and pressured the government, which had an Islamic base, to resign. Many observers called this a post-modern coup. After 1997, the headscarf ban on university campuses began to be applied more severely. Most of the civil societal organizations expressing demands about the right to education of women with headscarves were formed in 1999. These women were unable to enjoy full citizenship rights unless they took off their headscarves at the gates of the university campuses. Some women agreed to wear wigs on top of their headscarves in order to attend their classes. Some universities established “persuasion rooms” at their gates where women were “convinced” to take off their headscarves. At times, even elderly women with headscarves who came to the graduation ceremonies of their children on university campuses were not allowed through the gates. In 1999, the first woman Member of Parliament wearing a headscarf was elected to the Turkish parliament. She tried to enter the parliament amidst protests, but failed to do so. In a rather interesting case in 2003, a woman wearing a headscarf was expelled from the courtroom by a judge for refusing to take off her headscarf despite the fact that she was in the courtroom as the accused person.

These cases portray that, in Turkey, women who chose to wear headscarves for religious reasons were unable to enjoy certain basic rights of citizenship. These are not subservient women. They do not want to limit their activities to the private realm. Instead, they try to be active in the public realm. In doing so, they shatter the myth about the submissiveness of religious women. Urban secularist elites, on the other hand, think of themselves as Muslims, too, yet they like to see the control of religious activity by the state. In sum, urban secularist elites portray a statist profile. They are not troubled by a view of secularism that involves a state that controls religion as well as the dress codes of its female citizens. In a series of demonstrations held in 2007 in the name of defending the republican regime, some of the secularist elites went so far as approving military intervention, viewing it as aligned with the interests of the republican regime. These demonstrations were sparked by the candidacy of Abdullah Gül for the position of the President of the Turkish Republic, since his wife wears a headscarf. After securing about 47% of the votes in the July 2007 national election, Justice and Development Party reestablished itself in government. Afterwards, Gül was elected by the parliament as the new President.

The self-reflection of adult citizens

Many liberals in Turkey who are neither statist/secularist nor religious have been supporting the demands of women with headscarves in terms of their right to education. The ban was lifted in 2008 by a reform in the Constitution that was undertaken by the Justice and Development Party. Some of the liberals were critical of the “methods” of the Justice and Development Party since the lift of the headscarf ban was handled as a “single” issue of the Muslim community rather than as part of a “package of human rights reforms” that could have included the reform of the notorious Article 301 that prohibits “insulting Turkishness.” (This article has been used against many writers and intellectuals in Turkey.) Still, there is no doubt that liberals support the lift of the ban on headscarves on university campuses. What some of the liberals do not support is the toleration of religious clothes in primary and secondary schools.

There is no doubt that the lift of the ban contributed to a succession of political events that may eventually end in the closure of the Justice and Development Party. On March 31, 2008, the members of the Constitutional Court unanimously decided to deliberate a lawsuit that contained an indictment against the Justice and Development Party for being the focal point of anti-secular activities. It was filed by the country’s top public prosecutor.

To conclude, it is obvious that the headscarf is a highly contested issue in Turkey. The assessment of this issue as a matter of modernization and progress as opposed to backwardness has been harmful, since it draws one’s attention away from the basic citizenship rights of the women with the headscarf. The heart of the headscarf issue in Turkey really involves women who are self-reflecting adults and who would like to receive university education. State officials in Turkey seem unable to make a distinction between the civil servants that work for the state and those that they serve. Women with headscarves who are longing to attend universities are not civil servants. They are adult citizens who just want to be served by civil servants by attending classes in university campuses. The debate over religious insignia, which usually involves children and teenagers in primary and secondary schools in Europe, is quite different from the headscarf debate in Turkey. The fact that the Turkish state had been able to instigate such a ban on headscarves in universities portrays the endurance of the legendary state tradition in Turkey. It is obvious that this state tradition still constitutes a big shadow over the realm of politics in Turkey.

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One Response to “The headscarf and citizenship in Turkey”

  1. avatar Sara Kok says:

    It was a pleasure to read an article in English describing the situation in Turkey so well. I am a British Muslim woman, married to a Turkish man, and I have worn a headscarf in the Islamic style for 17 years—13 of those in the UK, where I continued to work in schools, colleges and universities as a teacher and administrator, with absolutely no discrimination against me because of my religious choices and clothes. Yet in four years in Turkey I have struggled to do anything as I refuse to remove my scarf or wear a wig. I cannot even visit my husband in his workplace, a university, for fear of the backlash this could create for him and other colleagues classed as “religious” by those calling themselves “secularist.” I would like to know what I as an educated English speaking Muslim living in Turkey can do to remove this injustice, not just for students but for women wanting to work and for the husbands of women who face discriminatory behaviour in the workplace because of their wives’ choices.

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