The Headscarf Debate in Turkey

A Political Issue Par Excellence

One of the biggest promises made by politicians of the current government was to lift the ban on headscarves at universities. Critics regard the attempt to lift the ban a fundamental threat to Turkey's secular state. Ömer Erzeren reports

Woman wearing the Muslim headscarf, a boy in the background (photo: Sirvan Sarikaya)
The headscarf has become elevated to a political symbol, writes Ömer Erzeren

​​In May 2006, after an extremist right-wing Islamic gunman shot at the judges of the Second Chamber of the Council of State in Ankara, killing one judge and wounding four others, the public clamored for an explanation. During police interrogation, the attacker claimed that he acted in response to the ban on headscarves.

The judges had previously upheld a decision forbidding a public kindergarten teacher from wearing a headscarf. The Islamic newspaper "Vakit" had published the names and photographs of the judges and declared them to be targets. The court decision was controversial.

A threat to Turkey's secular state

Even the Turkish prime minister sharply attacked the judges. The funeral of the judge attracted tens of thousands of protesters wanting to highlight the threat posed to the secular republic by Islamic radicals. They regard the attempt to lift the ban on women students wearing headscarves as a fundamental threat to Turkey's secular state.

The case demonstrates how the headscarf has since become elevated to a political symbol. Hardly any rational discussion can currently take place on issues such as secularism, which is enshrined in the constitution, the separation of church and state, the guarantee of freedom of belief, and the dividing line between the public and private sphere. Yes or no to the headscarf has become the ideal issue for the country's political forces to polarize society.

For all that, the headscarf does not play a significant role for the vast majority of the population. For decades, the traditional women's head covering had absolutely nothing to do with politics. It was just part of everyday life for the masses. It was likewise perfectly natural that girls in school and young women at the university did not cover their heads.

With a rising level of education came a readiness to take off the headscarf. There was no ban on headscarves at universities and there were likewise no students who wore them. The daughters of the republican elite did not wear headscarves.

The emergence of political Islam

The situation first began to change in the 1980s and 90s. The basis of the conflict began with Turkey's growing urbanization and the subsequent admission to university of young women from conservative religious families. The ideologues of the politicized Islamic movement soon recognized the explosiveness of this issue.

​​Parallel to the rise of political Islam were regular demonstrations against the ban on headscarves by some universities. Attempts to liberalize rules on the headscarf were defeated in court. After 1997, regulations were tightened. The "National Board of Higher Education" instituted a mandatory dress code, according to which the headscarf is not permitted at universities.

One of the biggest promises made by politicians of the current government was to lift the ban on headscarves at universities. The "Justice and Development Party", which now forms the government of Turkey under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has its origins in the Islamic movement.

Erdogan constantly spoke of a "great injustice" perpetrated against religious students. Back when current Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül sat in parliament as a member of the opposition, he personally worked towards getting his wife, who wears a headscarf, enrolled in university, without success.

Political stalemate

Even after Erdogan came to power in 2002, the situation did not change. The parliamentary majority was not large enough to force a change. Opponents of the headscarf still include the Turkish president, the powerful military, the judicial system, the "National Board of Higher Education", and university rectors. The situation today is stalemated.

There appears to be no place for a social compromise supported by a broad majority of the population.

The Turkish government laid great hopes in a suit brought by a medical student to the "European Court of Human Rights". The student was expelled from university for wearing a headscarf. Yet, in 2004, the court concluded that no human rights violations had occurred, as a university dress code had already been in place.

Hopes that a European court could solve a domestic problem were thereby crushed. Demonstrations against the headscarf ban have long since ceased.

The politicians surrounding Erdogan have instead set their expectation on a long march through the institutions.

This year, the parliament will vote on a new Turkish president. The president, in turn, names the chairman of the "National Board of Higher Education". With new faces in these positions, the way could be open for headscarves at universities.

No real debate takes place

What is shocking is that no real debate has taken place on the nature of secularism and its relationship to religion and freedom of belief. Greater emphasis on conservative and religious curriculum in the school is increasingly being promoted by the Education Ministry.

Recently, a reproduction in a schoolbook of Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People" was censored by the ministry, because it portrays a bare-breasted woman. The erosion of enlightened thinking in schools, however, receives less attention than the headscarf issue.

Turkey thereby remains the only Muslim country where universities forbid the wearing of the headscarf, all the while a gradual Islamisation of its educational institutions is taking place unopposed. The headscarf issue still provokes bizarre reactions.

Recently, retired Professor Ilmiye Cig was charged by the Istanbul state prosecutor. The 92-year-old professor, who had spent her entire life researching the Sumerians and Hittites, stated in a book that among the Sumerians, a Babylonian society that existed more than five thousand years ago, prostitutes wore headscarves.

The state prosecutor is demanding that the professor be sentenced to a year-and-a-half in jail for stirring up hostility in the population.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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