A crash course in Turkey’s headscarf debate

Confused by all the knots and shapes? Here’s our guide
Hayrünisa Gül
Hayrünnisa Gül

Confused by all the knots and shapes? Here’s our guide

Not for the first time in recent Turkish politics, the headscarf is all anyone can talk about. That piece of fabric that Muslim women use to wrap around their heads has been banned in universities and public buildings de jure since 1980, and de facto since 1997, meaning that Turkish women wearing it are not allowed to work in most civil service positions. Many, including the president’s wife, were given a place at university but were unable to go because of the headwear.

The issue has been raised very often over the last decade, in particular since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) came to power in 2002. But for all the fierce political debate, there have been few attempts to find a political solution. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when one party took the initiative. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not AK who piped up. If they had, it surely would have triggered accusations of a hidden Islamic agenda faster than it takes to wrap a headscarf.

No, it was Devlet Bahçeli and his right wing Nationalist and Action Party (MHP) who first said some arrangement had to be made. AK officials jumped at the opportunity and now, two weeks later, we have a bill that would lift the ban on wearing the most basic form of headscarf in Turkish universities.

The changes involve modifying two articles of the constitution, which concern equality before the law and the rights to education, to say that no person shall be deprived of an education except for reasons openly laid out in the law. There is a more explicit revision to the law for higher education, which says: “No-one shall be deprived of their right to higher education because their head is covered, nor can any enforcement or arrangement be made in this regard. However, the covering of the head must leave the face open and allow for the person to be identified, and must be tied beneath the chin.”

Voting takes place in parliament at the end of next week. Together, AK and MHP have enough of a majority to pass the bill through, although they have been lobbying the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the small left wing DSP to come on board. The CHP’s Hakkı Suha Okay described the proposal as “insufficient”, and added, somewhat bizarrely, that the AK and MHP had clearly not come to any consensus on how to solve the problem. He also confirmed a return to their tactics of last spring, saying that they would fulfil their duty of opposition by challenging the bill in the Supreme Court, after it passes. The DSP were a little more cooperative, refraining from comment until they had reviewed the proposal.

The process is by no means over – President Abdullah Gül has hinted at putting the matter to referendum even if the bill passes, and there is little appetite for that in any party – but it is nevertheless encouraging that the matter is being discussed, the CHP’s guerilla threats aside, in such a mature manner.

OAP style
OAP style

The Turkish headscarf debate is complicated by the fact that there are more styles than just the loose headscarf and the full veil. Under the new arrangement, Mr Gül’s wife, Hayrünnisa (pictured at the start of this article), would still not be permitted to enroll at a university, because her choice of headscarf covers the neck. Rather, it will be the so-called “traditional” style of headscarf that is permitted. No-one knows precisely what that is, although some media outlets have dubbed it the “grandmother headscarf”, in reference to what is predominant among Turkey’s OAPs.

With a knot
With a knot

A firm definition of what separates a headscarf (başörtü) from what Mrs Gül is wearing will not be decided until later. How, for instance, should the headscarf be tied under the chin: in a knot, as is popular in the countryside or in the home, or with a special kind of pin, which is more widespread in the cities and tightens the scarf around the face?

The word “secularist” in Turkey is a collective term that tends to refer to the Turkish state, the CHP, and the army, although definitions vary (the MHP would describe itself as ‘secularist’ too – but then again, so would AK). These secularists argue, with some degree of justification, that the headscarf has become a symbol of political Islam. They point to the fact that some women attend university wearing wigs over their headscarves which makes it not a symbol of faith but a blatant protest. CHP leader Deniz Baykal yesterday described it as a “foreign uniform” and the entire issue as “an incident provoked from outside the country, an Arab symbol targeting the secular Turkish republic.”

As a fashion accessory
As a fashion accessory

Part of the secularist position is that the whole point of a Muslim headscarf is to conceal a woman’s beauty, rather than becoming an accessory for it. Why, they ask, is there a whole industry in headscarf fashion (see right)? They say the whole concept is paradoxical and only reinforces the argument that it is a political symbol.

There is also the open-ended question of where it will all end. Now that the first lady sports a headscarf, and universities might be permitting them, there is a fear that the next step will only further dismantle Atatürk’s legacy.

That doesn’t seem likely at the moment. Government spokesman Cemil Çiçek told this morning’s Hürriyet in the clearest terms I have ever seen him speak that the restriction would be lifted solely for universities, and not for public offices or primary and secondary schools. He said the permitted headscarf would be tied beneath the chin, and revealed that they were even thinking of attaching photographs of a regulation headscarf to the law.

There is a lot of scaremongering going on, and Radikal‘s front page today played very effectively on it by modifying Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” to wear a headscarf, under the headline “Republic of fear”. With the army openly opposed, AK are being very careful. But in this ruling, they might succeed.

Headscarf photos from here, here, here and here.

Related Posts