Headscarf Dispute in Turkey

Veiled Debates

The dispute over the headscarf ban in Turkey is displacing more urgent discussions on present-day relations between state and religion. Both Islamist forces and the politically inflexible Kemalists who oppose headscarves benefit, writes Ömer Erzeren.

At times the dispute over the headscarf takes a bizarre turn. Such was the case recently in the city of Erzurum in northeastern Turkey, when the university held a ceremony to award graduates their diplomas.

The parents were invited to attend. But a few mothers wearing headscarves were turned away at the door. The reason was the directive issued by the rector prohibiting women wearing headscarves from entering the university.

Female students in Turkey are strictly forbidden to wear headscarves. The events in Erzurum extended the ban to the mothers of students who wished to enter a building to participate in a ceremony. So far it has been the most radical measure taken by headscarf opponents.

For days the Turkish media reported on the event, and commented on the undemocratic, intolerant spirit that it demonstrated. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a "great injustice." But the rector who had issued the controversial directive defended his actions.

The headscarf as an affront to the constitution

A traditional piece of clothing, such as the headscarf, ruffles feathers in politics like no other topic. Some see headscarves at universities as a political symbol of the Islamist movement, leading down the path to undermining secularism, the separation of state and religion. For them the headscarf is an affront to the constitution.

Allowing women to wear headscarves at universities is regarded as an attack on the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal in 1923.
Others insist on the right of the individual to choose his or her own clothing. They claim that religious freedom is also violated when grown-up female students are not given the right to obey the Islamic command to cover themselves.

Turkey is the only country with an Islamic majority population where headscarves are banned at universities. Even in France, with its great tradition of secularism, headscarves are banned in public schools, but not at universities.

The debate over the headscarf affects not only the universities. It causes confusion even for those in charge of keeping protocol for the president. October 29 is the most important national holiday in Turkey. On this day the founding of the republic is celebrated, and on this occasion the president invites the members of parliament and their spouses together with the leaders of the judiciary and the military to a reception.

Absurd political theater

Many wives of the members of the ruling party AKP (Party for Justice and Development) wear headscarves. To prevent women with headscarves from attending the reception, the president has come up with an unusual practice of extending invitations.

The standard invitation goes to members of parliament and their spouses. Parliament members whose wives are known to wear headscarves are simply invited without their spouse. There are no female members of parliament who wear headscarves. That would probably cause a national crisis.

The headscarf debate, especially concerning the practice at universities, has gone on for two decades. Before the military coup in 1980 no legal basis existed for such a ban. But then again the question never arose.

The daughters of Republican elites who attended universities did not wear headscarves. Only with the sweeping changes accompanying the process of urbanization, the opening of universities to the broad masses, and the immatriculation of female students from conservative houses were the seeds laid for conflict.

Political instrumentalization

Islamists discovered the headscarf as an instrument of political mobilization. The traditional headscarf was an everyday item of clothing for Turkish migrants who were moving into the cities. The bans made it convenient for political Islam to turn a mundane object into a political symbol.

Today only a small minority of female students wish to wear headscarves. Only the ban made the headscarf attractive; only the ban let the headscarf appear as a symbol of opposition.

It was the military which brought the universities to heel after the coup in 1980. An all-powerful Council of Higher Education was established, setting an end to the university self-administration. Today the headscarf ban at Turkish universities is still based on court decisions and the regulations of the Council of Higher Education.

A general liberalization desired by the government in 1989 was repealed by a constitutional court decision and various administrative court decisions. At the beginning of the 1990s it was largely left to the rector’s discretion to deal with the headscarf issue. After 1997 regulations were tightened.

In effect today is a binding dress code, decreed by the Council of Higher Education, that does not permit headscarves at universities. The last hope for those who wanted to allow women to wear headscarves at universities was the European Court for Human Rights.

But their hopes were dashed. The grievance filed by medical student Leyla Sahin, who was subject to disciplinary action for wearing a headscarf and finally left the university in 1998, was rejected by the court in 2004. The European Court for Human Rights declared that dress codes issued by universities were not a violation of human rights.

A party sitting on the fence

Although its leaders have strong ties to political Islam, the victory of the Party for Justice and Development in the elections of 2002 has done nothing to change the headscarf ban. The party feared conflict with the Kemalist elite, who are heavily represented in the military and the judiciary.

A few eyebrow-raising situations have been the result. Hayrünisa Gül, the wife of the Turkish foreign minister, filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights because she had been denied admission to the university because of her headscarf. She withdrew her complaint to avoid going to court against a country whose foreign minister was her husband.

And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan frequently complains when abroad that his two daughters must study in the United States because they are not allowed to study with headscarves in Turkey. Erdogan talks as if he were not the minister president, a person with the greatest political clout, but as if he were a simple citizen suffering injustice in his own country.

Serious questions, such as the relationship between state and religion, are seldom discussed. Here, though, there is much to debate. Secularism has been an inseparable part of the Republican constitution for more than seventy years. And secularism is widely accepted in Turkey today. This is not to be taken for granted in an Islamic country.

Veiled realities

Those who wish to abolish secularism and establish Sharia, Islamic law, are socially marginalized extremists. But the form of secularist practice leaves many questions open.

Why does the secularist Turkish state maintain a large apparatus called the Office of Religious Affairs? Why are the beliefs of the Alevites not represented? Why is religion a compulsory subject in public schools? Why are cases of discrimination against non-Muslim religions on the rise? Why do some municipalities supply mosques with free drinking water while churches and synagogues have to pay? A church in Ankara recently took the city council of Ankara to court to fight for free drinking water.

Yet a veil hangs over the important debates, while the headscarf issue is talked about everywhere. The anachronistic headscarf ban is displacing the debate over real problems. Both Islamic forces and the politically inflexible Kemalist opponents of the headscarf benefit from this. Thus it is time to demystify the debate.

To an extent this is already happening. Politically left-wing secularists have called for a repeal of the headscarf ban at universities. And some religious conservatives admit that repealing the headscarf ban will not solve any problems, and that secularism must be strengthened in certain areas of society.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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