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Opinion

A leap forward in Turkey's democracy

The author lauds Turkey's resolution of the headscarf problem and urges other governments to depoliticise the issue.

Last Modified: 02 Nov 2013 17:55
Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur

Zeynep Kandur is currently vice president of the AKP's Istanbul Women's Branch and is responsible for the Foreign Affairs Department.
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Since a majority of Turkish women wear the headscarf, the "ban was probably the most blatant attempt to impose the values of one sector of society on another - or rather, the values of a minority on a majority," writes Kandur [AFP]

On October 31, history was made in Turkey. Four female members of the Turkish Grand Assembly walked calmly, accompanied by mild applause, into the main chamber. They had been there before. But today the difference was that these four members were wearing headscarves.

They were taking advantage of the fact that with the recently introduced democratisation packet, the ban on the traditional hijab/headscarf had been lifted, thus allowing women with hijabs to work in government posts.

Due to this momentous occasion, we are reminded of the events of May 2, 1999. On that day, Merve Kavakci was drummed out of the same Grand National Assembly. She was stripped of her Turkish nationality and banned indefinitely from participating in politics. She was accused of being an agent provocateur merely because she wanted to be sworn into parliament wearing a headscarf.

Threat to secularism?

When the clothing reforms were first introduced in the new Turkish Republic, the headscarf was not mentioned; women’s clothing was not an issue. The real problem for the headscarf started after the 1980 coup d’etat, and reached its zenith in February 1997. Girls and young women were forbidden from wearing the headscarf in high-schools and universities; many were forced to abandon their education or look for alternative solutions abroad.

The scarf is many things to many people. To some, it is a symbol of piety, to some, a politicisation of tradition, or a combination of the two. But above all, it is a personal choice and a personal interpretation.

In 2007, when AK (Justice and Development) Party had been in government for five years and had a good strong popular base, a law allowing headscarves in schools was passed by the parliament. However, this law was taken to the constitutional court on the basis that it violated the principle of secularism. In addition, due to this law, a case was brought for the dissolution of the AK Party. This is how extreme the headscarf issue had become - it nearly brought about the demise of a democratically-elected party that had a majority in the parliament.

Many people who speak out against the headscarf make it clear that they have no problem with traditional, uneducated women wearing the headscarf - indeed, cleaning women could enter Turkish universities with headscarves; only students, lecturers or the daughters and wives of lecturers could not set foot on university property wearing a headscarf. The problem occurs when women who are politically active or working in public jobs wear the headscarf.

The secularist argument is that the women who wear headscarves are not doing so out of personal choice, but rather because they are forced to by Muslim men, as the latter do not want women to be involved in the public arena. The real agenda, they claim, is that these men want to establish an Islamic regime in which all women wear hijab.

Tradition v modernity

However, there is a dilemma here. If the hijab is being used by men to keep women out of the public arena, then is not the ban doing their work for them? And, why then, are these same women demanding rights to education and participation in the workforce? The actual problem is not between men and women; it is not a question of a feminist struggle. It is a problem between tradition and modernity; it is a problem created by a mind-set that tries to design society and the role of women in that society.

Four years ago young women started to enter universities with hijab. As of two years ago all universities allow their female students to wear headscarves. So what has changed? This was not a change imposed from the top. This was a gradual change, introduced by the universities themselves. A number of leading universities decided that this rule was not practical and changed it. With peer pressure, the rest followed suit.

This is the essence of democracy. The majority of Turkish women - 65 percent - wear headscarves. They want to pursue an education and have their voices heard. They have reached their goal. The headscarf ban was probably the most blatant attempt to impose the values of one sector of society on another - or rather, the values of a minority on a majority. There is hope today that Turkey's covered women will no longer be marginalised in their own society.

There is hope today that Turkey's covered women will no longer be marginalised in their own society.

Thus, there have been positive developments in this matter in Turkey; however, from time to time headscarf issues have appeared in a number of European countries. For example, recently, a midlands university in Britain tried to impose a ban on the niqab which covers the face. Thousands of signatures were quickly gathered and the university reversed the decision. A week later, a court in London ruled that a woman could attend court in the niqab, but had to take it off when giving evidence. This seems to be a reasonable compromise in keeping with justice and respect.

In France, there have long been problems with education and the headscarf. French laicism guarantees freedom of religion and the neutrality of the state in order to protect the national identity. The French concern is that the headscarf signifies that the wearer is identifying with something that goes above and beyond French national sentiments. In 1994, the Counseil d’Etat ruled that religious clothing/symbols in schools were permissible as long as they remained within the principles of laïcité. The scarf was seen to be within these bounds. However, the 2004 Stasi report forbade all religious symbols from schools, and this is how things remain.

Politicisation of personal choice

What Muslims believe or whom they worship is not the issue here. It is the visible Muslim that makes French society, and indeed other societies, uncomfortable; different religions, different cultures and different races are encouraged to live side by side, but they should act the same. But surely, if every religion, every culture looks and acts the same, then this is not a pluralist or multicultural society. The essence of pluralism is the celebration of differences.

The scarf is many things to many people. To some, it is a symbol of piety, to some, a politicisation of tradition, or a combination of the two. But above all, it is a personal choice and a personal interpretation.

It is time that this politicisation of the headscarf in Turkey and elsewhere comes to an end. The headscarf was made into a political symbol when it was banned from public sphere. It was not politicised by those who wore it. It was politicised by those who wanted to remove it from sight. Only by lifting the ban can balance on the issue be restored in society. 

Zeynep Kandur is currently vice president of the AKP's Istanbul Women's Branch  and is responsible for the Foreign Affairs Department.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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