Dividing the Nation

The debate on the Muslim headscarf is becoming increasingly tainted by ideology, and not only in Germany and France. In Turkey, too, the controversy increasingly threatens to divide public opinion, as Dilek Zaptcioglu reports from Istanbul.

Photo: Frauen Orient/Okzident

​​It’s an everyday sight in Istanbul: women on the bus, some of them fashionably coiffeured, others wearing the Muslim headscarf: peaceful co-existence. In big, American-style shopping centres, women with their heads covered stand at the rummage tables alongside others with their hair worn free.

Some carry the goods they’ve bought for all to see, while others hide their purchases beneath ankle-length coats. And they meet at the hairdresser’s, too; for many women, particularly the younger ones, do want to look good beneath the veil.

A comforting illusion of harmony

Yet this peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. In Turkey, no other topic gets people so worked up as the Muslim headscarf. For some, it’s a symbol of religious fanaticism and the oppression of women that ultimately has to be banished from public life. Women who have chosen a Western lifestyle often feel actual physical discomfort at the sight of a woman wearing the headscarf.

Others are convinced that the veiling of women is commanded by the Koran, and they argue that a ban would infringe their right to practice their religion freely – something that is anchored in the country’s democratic constitution. In their view, an unveiled woman is at the very least a sinner, if not in fact an infidel; and whenever these people have the choice, they too prefer to be left to themselves.

So far, the state of affairs in Turkey may sound very similar to the situation in Germany or France; and indeed, in all these countries, the same kind of arguments are marshalled by both sides. In Turkey, too, the debate is being conducted with increasingly passionate intensity through the various channels of the mass media.

France’s secular tradition as a role-model

There is, however, one small but important difference: in contrast to the Western European countries, Turkey is populated mainly by Muslims. This doesn’t mean, however, that Turkey is "an Islamic country", nor does it imply that all of its people are practising Muslims; for since the foundation of modern Turkey 80 years ago, the country has defined itself as a "secular state", in which religion and politics are to be strictly separated by law. Although the state does monitor the exercise of religious worship, the constitution unambiguously prohibits any kind of religious influence on the practice of politics.

For the founders of the Turkish Republic, France’s secularism functioned as a role model; and consequently, no one in Turkey is surprised that the French now want to ban the headscarf from their schools. Turkish girls are already forbidden to wear the headscarf to school, from the first day of primary-level education onwards.

Nonetheless, this is a topic that has been the source of heated controversy in Turkey for decades – and in the current battle, the schools and universities form the front line.

The universities as a platform for the headscarf debate

"Having lost Islam for a time, humankind has found it again. We all grew up in the 80s and 90s – and we are now witnessing the collapse of Western civilisation! The revival of religion moves on from strength to strength!"

hese are the rallying cries of young, veiled, women at the University of Istanbul - women who make no secret of their Islamist worldview. For most of these educated, metropolitan students, Islam has become an ideology that allows them to interpret the present while pointing the way towards the future.

The headscarf has long since become the symbol for an "Islamic ideology" that refuses to see religious faith as something to be "caged in" in the private sphere; instead, it wants to see this faith "lived out" in every area of public and private life. These young female students are also interested in the Iraqi "resistance" and the Chechens’ struggle against the Russians. They are often actively involved in political organisations, and they spend a lot of time reading Islamist political literature.

The headscarf as a symbol of an "alternative, divine set of coordinates"

The veil these women wear is known in Turkish as the "türban": in contrast to the traditional headscarf worn by rural Turkish women – which is bound loosely under the chin, and often reveals a few stray strands of hair without anyone being bothered by the fact - the Islamist türban is crossed at the nape of the neck.

In her recent commentary on the French plan to ban the headscarf, the well-known Islamist lawyer Sibel Eraslan described the Muslim headscarf as a symbol of "an alternative, divine set of coordinates, diametrically opposed to the basic principles of Western modernity".

Faced with the "türban attack", says Eraslan, the West has been forced into a position it can defend only with great difficulty; for, as she sees it, a ban is irreconcilable with the existing legal systems of the Western countries. Eraslan argues that hatred of the headscarf is evidence of a system that "rejects any connection to the divine". For her, as for many Islamists, the headscarf has become the most important tool in the struggle to "re-Islamicise" society.

With and without the veil – a brief historical review

It’s true that the revival of the veil has been accompanied by a strengthening of the role played by Islam in modern Turkish society. In the 30s and 40s, headscarves disappeared from the Turkish cities, only to reappear in greater numbers in the course of the 60s.

Until then, there had been a one-party system in Turkey. The strictly secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) had paid close attention to upholding the clothing reforms introduced by Kemal Atatürk. Men were forbidden to wear the turban, the fez or the kaftan, while women were banned from wearing the charshaf, the black "sheet" that conceals the entire body with the exception of the eyes or the face.

Women are, and were, permitted to wear a headscarf at home or on the street – but not in the state-controlled areas: in schools, universities, hospitals, law courts and government offices, no kind of veil or headscarf is permitted.

The officially-stated goal is to produce "enlightened, educated Turkish women". If these women are to become doctors, lawyers, teachers or engineers, it is argued, then they will have to fit the modern Western image of an emancipated woman.

The Kemalist worldview sees Western civilisation - or more precisely, the achievements of the French Revolution – as dependable signposts towards the future. The task is to stick to the path while marching onwards to a better world.

The secularists argue that the kind of regression (in Turkish: irtica) manifested in deep religiosity or in the wearing of the headscarf will eventually be defeated. In the words of Nur Vergin, a professor of politics: "To the founders of the Republic, religious faith per se was deeply suspect." In their view, the traumatic collapse of the Ottoman Empire was due mainly to the deeply conservative interpretation of Islam that has prevailed amongst Muslims for centuries.

"The West was victorious because we Muslims were stagnating", argued the Kemalists – and they pointed to the veiling of women as the prime example of this stagnation. From the modernist, positivist West, the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic adopted faith in science as a replacement for the ancient faith in God.

The fear of a headscarf revival

In a highly respected book entitled "The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling" (Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), the sociologist Nilüfer Göle has described how the Turkish modernists focused on the liberation of women: from the established patriarchy, and from the outer and inner constraints that made them prisoners in their own homes and debarred them from participating in Turkish society.

Only after the foundation of the Republic were Turkish women enabled to step out from the shadow of their men folk and take their place confidently on the public stage.

These are also the reasons why so many contemporary Turkish women – and especially those who live in the cities – are frightened of the Muslim headscarf. They know what a hard struggle it took to realise the freedoms and social rights nominally introduced by Atatürk; and they see the headscarf, quite simply, as the symbol of a counter-revolution that wants to rob them of everything they have won. They point to the compulsory veiling of women in post-revolutionary Iran as an example of what they most fear.

But is this really the goal of the "headscarf movement"? If so, they must be celebrating the progress they have made towards achieving it: for today, headscarves and “modest” ankle-length dresses are worn by the wives of almost every senior politician in the Turkish government.

Last summer, the Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan attended the arranged marriage of his son with a 17-year-old schoolgirl. The bride wore a wedding dress that concealed everything but her face and her hands. Pictures of the wedding aroused strong feelings of aversion amongst "non-veiled" women: "I refuse to accept that these women represent me, as a Turkish woman, to the rest of the world", says the housewife Ayla S.; and she admits that she would even approve of a military coup if it led to the banning of "these headscarves" from the sphere of public life.

A questionable ban

Yet most of the "veiled" young women in the Turkish cities are also the children of Atatürk’s modernised Turkey. They have no desire to sit at home, waiting for their husbands. They want to go out, to work, to earn money - and they don’t want to be oppressed by men. In the case of these young women, the headscarf ban has precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

After studying medicine for four years, Nilüfer Pehlivan was forced to abandon her dream of becoming a doctor, for she was not permitted to take up a medical residency. She describes the crucial meeting with her professor:

"He compared it with a set of scales. He told me to imagine the headscarf on one side and my course of studies on the other - and he asked me which weighed more heavily in the balance. I felt as if someone were playing a horrible game with me, forcing me to choose between my faith and my studies. He told me I had to make a decision." No compromise was possible: Nilüfer left the room – and, eventually, she left the university, too.

What does the future hold? Though the headscarf ban at the universities has now been relaxed a little, it has not been suspended. Some places of higher education take a more "liberal" stance than others, where students have to hand in their headscarves at the door - or else engage in tragicomic ploys, such as wearing a wig over the scarf.

The growing threat of a polarised society

Currently, Turkey is governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is moderately Islamist, but has so far failed in its attempts to abolish the ban on headscarves. Little by little, however, those who advocate the veiling of women appear to be gaining ground.

At the universities, the ban has been relaxed even further, and the next stage in the headscarf campaign would be Parliament itself. Up to now, though, the Turkish state has fiercely resisted the presence of veiled deputies in the Turkish assembly.

Here, too, Turkish society is divided. The veiled woman is a symbol for a whole range of political developments, and however things turn out, this much is already clear: in Turkey, as elsewhere, the controversy seems bound to grow ever more acrimonious.

The headscarf dispute can no longer be seen in isolation from events in Western Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, and indeed the entire world. On this much, at least, all sides can agree: what’s at stake is much more than just a piece of cloth. The Muslim headscarf is also a political issue par excellence.

Dilek Zaptcioglu, © Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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