Oct 11, 2010
Every student of my modern Turkey class is shocked when they learn that in Turkish universities and in the government sector, the Islamic headscarf is banned and if a woman chooses to wear one she is barred from university classrooms and from working as a public servant. The irony is obvious: Turkey is a country where the [non-monolithic] Muslim population makes up about 99% of the general population.
The reasoning behind the ban is that the Turkish republic is an ideologically motivated secular state, in the spirit of French laicism, where in the public sphere no religious symbolism should be professed (an idea I myself have been sympathetic to in the past). However, with the rise of the conservative Islamic leaning AKP government during the last 8 years, the once taboo topic has been brought to question. Imagine a country where the President’s wife is not allowed in the parliament, or the Prime Minister’s daughters are not allowed to attend school in their own country. Of course, the topic is much more complicated than this and for now I will not expand; however, I will say that the overwhelming amount of the Turkish population, whether religious, secular, or between, when asked, really have no problem with the headscarf being worn in classes or in government offices. This conflict has been more about setting new precedents, and the secular establishment’s fear that they are quickly losing ground.
Following the recent Turkish referendum, with more leeway on their side, the government has once again began to raise their voices about the need to lift the ban. Showing responsibility,the opposition parties also have sent strong signals that the time has come to make the change. In fact, last week two universities alone announced that they will officially allow covered women in their classes. I stress “officially” since the truth be known that many universities and professors have been turning a blind-eye to the headscarf ban for some time now.
The soon-lifting of the headscarf ban in the universities is only the beginning. In fact, even if it is a huge step, the total lifting of the ban will not be solved by the Turkish education board (YÖK), or simply goodwill. It will take a unified approach with all the parties working together in order to ensure that the reforms are aimed at not making a political statement but are being done for the Turkish people as a whole; and equally important, to end the discrimination of a large constituency of Turkish women.
Let us not forget that the eventual integration of covered women will not change only the public-servant sector but also the private sector; in other words Turkey’s urban centers will eventually need to integrate covered women into their work force; whether this is at banks, supermarkets, and numerous other companies who see fit to hire only women without the headscarf.
With these reforms, there is no doubt that Turkey as we once knew it will change dramatically. The mirage of the sole “modern republican (uncovered) woman” will dissipate with the emergence of the “modern covered woman” side by side, competing on issues of merit and not one’s worldview or dress. In my opinion, the lifting of the ban could also be used as a jumping board for women to have their voice heard in a country where women are almost obsolete form the political system. Further it could be an opportunity for Turkish lawmakers to rethink anti-discrimination laws in general, offering a solution to the problem of companies which profile their employees based on dress, ethnicity, or gender.
In the end, the test will be whether the current Turkish government (and future ones) will be able to balance between the two camps and not create a situation where secular people feel that they no longer can express themselves freely as they wish. Turkey’s large secular population also has legitimate claims that need to be taken seriously. With alcohol being taxed at such rates that only middle and upper classes can drink, with the mosque call to prayer reaching volumes that were once unheard of, and with polygamy existing among circles close to the government (to name a few examples), the current government needs to draw clear lines and ensure that all will benefit from Turkey’s new face; importantly, the fact that the AKP has taken this long to begin to lift the headscarf ban shows that at least on this front they have demonstrated a great amount of sensitivity and have worked hard not to divide the country in two. Let us hope they continue to work in this spirit.