Monday, October 21, 2013

What is in a Headscarf? Some thought concerning Dress Code Revisions in Turkey

Turkish government signs onto revising dress code
partially lifting head scaef ban 
After over a decade in power, Prime Minister Erdoğan finally announced that his government has done away with the headscarf ban as part of his “Democratization Package,” which is aimed at correcting an array of state-sanctioned injustices. As of October 8, women in Turkey are now allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in the public sector, ending one of the Turkish Republic’s most stringent secular codes. The next day, television crews were out there to get a glimpse of public school teachers coming to school with their headscarves on.  As someone who has for years spoken against the ban, seeing these teachers was a joyous moment; I still remember when it was also forbidden for university students with the headscarf to enter the classroom. Good riddance to such times.    

Even if there are still some pockets of staunch secularists who vehemently oppose the right of women to cover their heads, it seems most Turkish citizens see this as a something of the past, and clearly unjust in its application. Simply, it was an absurd law that was blatantly discriminatory. One voice of objection actually came from an American emerita professor of anthropology at Stanford University, Carol Delaney, in a letter to the editor in response to a previous article entitled,  Turkey Lifts Longtime Ban on Head Scarves in State Offices (09 October 2013). She states:

The Turkish government’s lifting of the ban on head scarves in government offices  should not be taken as a sign of democracy, despite what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims. Instead, it is another insidious step toward the Islamist state he desires and against the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk”

What Professor Delaney had in mind when writing this (or anyone else supporting the continued ban) is hard to imagine since the debate over the headscarf for the most part has been a point of contention among male politicians and not the Turkish population at large. However, her point of view does represent one stream of the former intolerant Turkish State’s political elite.  

Erdoğan’s revising of the dress code, however, also received a negative response among some who have fought years for an end to the headscarf ban since the Turkish government fell short of addressing the issue in its entirety, keeping the headscarf ban in place in the military and police force. Further, while woman lawyers are able to cover in court, they still cannot serve as judges or public prosecutors. In other words, Erdoğan has legitimized the right to restrict the headscarf in certain fields of work, something that should be seen as a grave development in the path to freedom.

The fact that the Prime Minister has chosen to keep the ban in these fields of work is disappointing. While it can be argued perhaps that he chose to remain at a safe distance from the former secularist bastion of the courts and army, we know that over the last decade he has systematically strengthened civil institutions in Turkey, securing a state system that is no longer threatened by military coups; in other words, this does not hold up under scrutiny since he certainly has the power to implement it also in these spheres. Such a decision can lead to the conclusion that the Prime Minister might not find employment in security forces as a proper place for religious women to serve. In other words, yes for teachers, but not police officers.  

Women are not the only ones shortchanged in the revision of dress codes (by the way, women public employees still need to make sure their skirt goes down to their knees with no slit on the side). According to the current dress code, men employed in the government sector need to be clean shaven; meaning, a man with a beard, which also can be due to religious reasons, is still unable to work in the public sector (while the beard is banned a modest mustache is permitted; closely mirroring Erdoğan’s own facial features). 

So what are we to make of this? While the recent changing in the dress code should be applauded, citizens in Turkey supporting a liberal democratic state can actually interpret this move as a continuation of the “uniform” state, i.e., not a state that promotes diversity, but one that supports uniformity based on  the “State’s” will.

Further, the move by Erdoğan to implement the changes in the dress code now, can actually be interpreted as being motivated out of realpolitik and not out of a liberal understanding of equal rights. With three elections just around the corner (municipality, presidential, parliamentary), Erdoğan needs to address his own conservative base, and other political groups that have adopted a more religious conservative agenda than his own; especially since some liberal camps, who have supported his reforms during the last decade, are reconsidering their support in light of the Gezi Park protests.  

Perhaps it is telling that the same day when the newspapers were congratulating the new changes in the dress code, one of Erdoğan government ministers criticized a woman television presenter’s dress, as it showed too much cleavage. The next day she was fired by the television company. Truly this is a sign that in Turkey (as many places) controversy related to a women’s dress or body, will continue to be debated and monitored by male politicians.

While the partial-lifting of the headscarf ban is a great move towards allowing more women into the workforce, it seems that this is not topping the Turkish government’s agenda. With Erdoğan continuing to encourage families to have at least three children, if not four, heavy social pressures are being placed on Turkish women to remain in the home. Further, with Turkey’s booming economy, one would think that in terms of gender equality, Turkey would have improved; however, the opposite is true with Turkey dropping from 105 (out 135 countries) in 2006, to 124 in 2012, on the Global gender gap scale; despite this, one sign of hope is that women in the workforce has jumped from 23.3% in2008 to 29.3% in 2012 according to the Turkish Statistic Foundation (TUIK).

With huge gaps in gender equality, the major force of debate in Turkey now should move on from the issue of headscarves onto working towards a more gender equitable society. Unfortunately, the government’s continued partial ban on the headscarf sends a tacit message that women are not welcomed in all fields of government employment at a time when the opposite message is needed. 

1 comment:

  1. I supported lifting the ban for years, but one area I wasn't sure of was the courts. some people might not feel comfortable with prosecutors and judges wearing headscarves. consider a case where a drunk guy was beaten by the cops. would he -or we- trust such prosecutors and judges in this case? I'm not saying that I'm against it, but what I mean is that this is an area that needs to be analyzed deeply.
    maybe a solution would be a tighter control of hsyk on sensitive issues.
    I haven't thought about the army. you should be right, akp didn't want to give the impression that they received the control of the army and the courts.

    but there's another thing about headscarves that we neglect: the violation of rights of children. small kids at the age of 9-10 going to school with headscarves seem unacceptable to me. just like the recent german rule prohibiting circumcision until 15, girls should be protected from parents to use headscarves until some certain age -15 or 18-.

    lastly, the increase of the ratio of women in the workforce is too dramatic. even with major policy changes, a 6% increase wouldn't occur in 4 years. unfortunately, sometimes our census bureau is not trustable. when the government wants an increase, they change the way the data is calculated.