For human rights advocates in Turkey, all political alliances are necessarily alliances of convenience. The reasons for this are myriad, ranging from the particular militancy of Turkish nationalism, to the bitterness of Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish separatism, to the remarkable trust that Turkish culture continues to bestow on Devlet Baba, the “Father State.” Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is frequently framed as an Islamist Party and just as frequently as a liberal one, supporters of expanded human rights in Turkey have won significant victories and have many, many reasons for concern. [...]
The headscarf controversy
In a somewhat surprising move, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced today in a very close vote its decision to not ban the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP)—which was facing charges of threatening the laicist order of the country—but only to cut its financial state support. Despite the relatively moderate decision, the verdict presented by the President of the Constitutional Court sent a clear warning to the AKP that the judiciary will not tolerate any subversion of the laicist order. [...]
Running like a geological fault beneath Turkey is a long-standing split between the popularly elected government and the state. The elected government (at present dominated by the Islam-influenced Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP) is at odds with the state, which includes the military, judiciary, and other administrative institutions. Today the country is face to face with what many see as a judicial coup d’etat as the Constitutional Court deliberates whether or not to ban the popularly elected ruling party and bring down the government. This decision by seven judges (the minimum needed to convict) will change Turkey’s future. [...]
Later this week, the Turkish Constitutional Court is expected to hand down a decision that will determine the fate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many expect that the highest Turkish Court, when judging the legality of the AKP, will be consistent with its earlier decisions and close down the party, which has controlled the Turkish government since 2002. Furthermore, many expect the court to declare a five-year ban from politics for a considerable number (up to 70) of the party’s high-ranking representatives, including Prime Minster Tayyib Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül. All of this in the name of protecting the laicist order—or, at least, this is the language in which this cause is presented. [...]
Last March, the Chief Public Prosecutor of Turkey’s High Court of Appeals opened a closure case against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, which had received 47% of the votes in an 18-parties election eight months ago. The prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court not only for the closure of the party, but also for a ban on 71 leading politicians for five years, including Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. The indictment presents the case as if it is based on the AK Party’s support for the recent constitutional amendments that would lift the headscarf ban at universities. I am not convinced that the lifting of the headscarf ban is the real basis of the case for three main reasons. [...]
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. [...]
The analysis of the headscarf controversy cannot simply be based on arguments of liberal politics. Rather, it has to be analyzed within its historical context. In Turkey, the headscarf has assumed a symbolic character that refers to different historical memories and different understandings of modernity. For both sides of this conflict, the headscarf is at the center of the debate because the debate is, in its essence, about gender relations.
Women who are proponents of the headscarf distance themselves from secular models of feminist emancipation, but also seek autonomy from male interpretations of Islamic precepts. They represent a rupture of the frame both of secular female self-definitions and religious male prescriptions. They want to have access to secular education, follow new life trajectories that are not in conformity with traditional gender roles, and yet fashion and assert a new pious self. They are searching for ways to become Muslim and modern at the same time, transforming both.
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. [...]
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. [...]