Turkey at Odds over Headscarf Ban

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Kerim Okten / EPA

Turkey's ruling party, AKP, agreed with the MHP party to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic headscarves in universities.

The gloves are finally off. After years of sidestepping one of the most sensitive social issues in Turkey, the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has moved to lift a ban on young women wearing headscarves at universities. The country's secularists, who see the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam, are up in arms over the proposed reform. The debate is the latest installment in the ongoing and increasingly bitter tug of war between the government and a militantly secularist establishment long used to getting its way.

University students are currently banned from wearing headscarves under Turkey's strictly secularist laws, which decree that religious clothing cannot be worn in public places, including courts, state office and educational institutions.

But the issue has been simmering since the mid-1980s. The rise of political Islam, well-entrenched in Turkey's growing conservative middle class, has meant that more women are petitioning to be allowed to attend university with their heads covered. Because of the ban on headscarves, some have had to resort to wearing wigs or caps to be allowed into university buildings. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's two daughters, who cover their hair, avoided the predicament by studying in the U.S.

The government is now pushing through a constitutional amendment that simply states that "no one can be deprived of their right to higher education." It is expected to easily garner enough votes to pass in a final parliamentary vote Saturday. All eyes will then be on the Constitutional Court, which could decide that the move undermines secularism — an inviolable constitutional principle of modern Turkey.

Such a ruling may well be in the offing, since most members of the high court are known to be staunch secularists. The army, many academics and the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) have argued against lifting the ban. The change "aims to render the principle of secularism ineffective," CHP deputy Hakki Suha Okay told MPs during Wednesday's debate. "This step will encourage radical [Islamic] circles in Turkey, accelerate movement toward a state founded on religion, and lead to further demands against the spirit of the republic."

Yet the debate is not just black and white. Many liberal academics and commentators support lifting the ban on the grounds that a democracy cannot dictate the clothing choices of an 18-year-old. Ismet Berkan, editor of the left-leaning daily Radikal newspaper, holds that view, but with reservations. "A lot of people have very valid fears about the government's intentions," he says. "And the government does nothing to address those."

Prime Minister Erdogan, an often blustery and impatient politician, has done little to ease the tension. "If [the headscarf] is indeed a political symbol, does that make it a crime to wear it? Is wearing a symbol a crime?," he said at the start of this debate last month. To secularists, his words confirmed their worst fears — that the headscarf is not an expression of religious piety but of a political movement that ultimately seeks to impose Islamic law. Thousands of secularists, mostly women, took to the streets in the capital of Ankara last week chanting "Turkey will not become Iran."

If the constitutional court decides to overturn the change, Turkey heads into choppy political waters. Most worrying is the divisiveness this political debate has stirred up on the streets. "There is the beginning of an 'us' and a 'them' at a social level which isn't pleasant," says Berkan. "It's not a problem yet, but I hope it doesn't become one."