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Headscarves at universities

Questions about secularism as the government tries to lift the headscarf ban

Questions about secularism as the government tries to lift the headscarf ban

As I write, a second round of voting is underway in Turkey for the easing of the headscarf ban in universities. The bill has the support of the governing Justice and Development (AK) and opposition Nationalist Action (MHP) parties. It will pass, just like a first round did earlier in the week. The real question is what happens next.

Normal procedure is for laws such as this – a constitutional ammendment – to be taken directly to the president, Abdullah Gül, who can either approve it or exercise his one-time veto. It won’t be that simple this time, because the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) says it will take the bill to the Constitutional Court, arguing the bill itself infringes the constitution. Once again we return to a situation where a panel of judges hold a remarkable say over a major political issue.

But is it a political issue? The protestors gathered outside parliament today certainly think so. The MPs voting inside the chamber certainly think so. But we’re talking here about relaxing a ban on a choice of clothing that prevents a group of women from attending university – it is surely a social question too.

To isolate the matter for just one moment: there should be no question of whether women should be allowed to wear their headscarves at university. If it represents a personal faith, it should be no obstacle to education. But like so many things in Turkey, this is a highly symbolic issue, and secularists say it goes to the root of everything Turkey stands for.

There is no doubt that secularism has made Turkey unique. From an empire that even at its weakest was the indisputed leader of the Islamic world, it was transformed into a nationalist republic, its religious element entirely removed, and set firmly on a westward course. The Turkey of today is an official candidate for EU membership. Never before has a country so predominantly Muslim been this close to a group of countries that so predominantly are not. There is no other country in the world like it, and secularists are rightly proud of that.

But for all its benefits, Turkish secularism does not help illuminate the boundary where public life ends and personal life begins. Universities represent part of that boundary: are they public spaces that should be religion-neutral, or centres of learning where personal faith is irrelevant?

Many headscarf-wearing women do, it is true, attend university. While some fumble with wigs, others just remove the scarf before entering the classrom and put it back on immediately after leaving. There was even talk last summer of lecturers at Sabancı University in Istanbul who cast a blind eye at those who sport it.

Two major issues that exist in Turkey have been exposed by this latest debate. They are issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.

The first is the secular structure itself. Many in Turkey would have you believe that secularism is the country’s most important principle. It supercedes everything else, they say, including democracy if necessary. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, frequently warns that “secularism is becoming a matter for debate”, implicitly suggesting that it shouldn’t be. He is wrong.

Turkey’s secularism is not sanctified, it should be justified. The concept of keeping apart mosque and state should be explored and debated, not committed to memory in endless platitudes. Part of the reason for hawkish generals and Ataturk statues is an intrinsic fear that the system could be lost. The way to prevent that is to talk about it rather than defend it with a gun.

The second issue is the oil-and-water manner in which politicians operate in Turkey. Today’s response to the long-running headscarf debate has been typically Turkish: a decree from above is made, and those below are left to sort out the details. There was a small cry that the AK-MHP committee putting together the bill contained not one woman, but then again, there isn’t a single woman MP in parliament who wears a headscarf. There couldn’t be.

What politicians in this country have yet to understand is that social politics involves actually talking to those people whose lives you intend to change. This would mean public consultations, campus debates with ministers, perhaps even a televised seminar or two attended by the prime minister – the kind of thing at which European hearts beat a little faster. Mr Erdoğan himself attended a meeting with Turkish students and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. He looked uncomfortable, but he was there. He wouldn’t do the same thing in Turkey.