This week, the Turkish government officially lifted the ban on head scarves for workers in state offices—and controversy ensued.
Headscarves have long been a source of trouble in Turkey, a strictly secular country with a Muslim population that has struggled to find a balance between the two since its establishment in 1923. Because of its Ottoman and Islamic past, the founding of the Republic of Turkey after World War I codified secularism. Ataturk refused to allow the constitution to name Islam as the state religion and made sure that a secular legal system was put into place rather than an Islamic one. This tradition of secularism has continued to the present day, with various periods of push back from Islamic parties. The ban on headscarves for public servants and university students was not established by Ataturk himself but instituted in the 1980s, following intervention by the military to stop the perceived resurgence of Islamic parties in Turkish politics. Prime Minister Erdogan tried to amend the constitution in 2008 to allow the veil in universities, but he was opposed by the Constitutional Court; subsequent efforts were successful and the veil was legalized in universities in 2010.
The most recent lifting of the ban was another step in the same direction. It allows female civil servants to wear them but doesn’t lift the ban in the military, police, and judiciary system. Opinions on it are mixed. Some cheer it as a victory for human rights, claiming that the ban unfairly discriminated against women who were religious and forced them to choose between their education or their job and their religion. Others fear that it’s a step by Erdogan’s AK Party to erode the secularism that defines the country. This Islamic ruling party (albeit an extremely moderate one) is constantly under attack by those who mistrust their actions.
While one can see where this second party of concern comes from, such fears are unfounded. The AK Party has embarked on a series of reforms in the country to improve the livelihoods of the people, most notably minorities. For example, Erdogan has worked to restore the country’s historically bad relationship with its Kurdish population. In a huge divergence from the former policy of not acknowledging their presence, he has publicly referred to the “Kurdish problem,” lifted bans on speaking Kurdish, and allowed Kurdish schools to be opened. Similarly, his party has worked to improve human rights in the country, including the promotion of free press, and consensus is that they have made progress in this arena. Critics in both areas rightly point out that the government has a long way to go, but the AK Party has certainly proved a level of commitment to these reforms.
Keeping them in mind, then, the lifting of the headscarf ban for civil servants and university students is not uncharacteristic for the government. After all, a 2006 poll indicates that 63% of Turkish women cover their heads. That is a huge section of the population being excluded from important roles in public service and from opportunities of higher education. (Side note: when I traveled to Istanbul, I met a girl from Turkey who had gone to school in the US. When I asked her why, she said it was because of the headscarf ban; she wouldn’t have been allowed to adhere to her religion had she attended. She also rightly pointed out to me that she was lucky to have been able to afford to go to school in America. Many of her friends who made similar decisions not to remove the veil, never attended university at all).
It’s important to note that Erdogan’s law by no means makes the wearing of it mandatory or even encourages it. It just allows women who want to the freedom to do so. In this sense it’s clearly a victory for human rights and for freedom of religion and education; the banning of the heafscarf denies women the freedom to practice their religion, the same as making synagogues or churches illegal. Also, the wearing of the scarf doesn’t seem to signal political affiliation. Not every woman who supports Erdogan wears a headscarf; not every woman who wears a headscarf supports Erdogan. Indeed, summer protests against Erdogan were attended by veiled women, who oppose the AK Party for a number of reasons, including the lack of progress in other areas of women’s rights.
Those who fear the end of secularism in Turkey should not be alarmed by the lifting of the ban for civil servants. It’s just another step by the ruling AK Party to increase freedom for citizens and appeal to a wider swath of people in Turkey. There’s a long way to go before the strict path of secularism is violated by Islamists, and, given the huge outcry against the lifting of the ban, they won’t get far on it if they try.
Image courtesy: Özgür Mülazımoğlu