Turkey is Typing… Turban or No Turban?

The “Turban” (or Islamic Headscarf) in Turkey has always been a hot-button issue within the Republic. This week, the Turkish parliament approved a preliminary bill that would allow women to wear head scarves at University….the result of which has caused an outcry from many sections of Turkish society. We'll look at the issue itself, whether or not the headscarf is a political or religious symbol, and discuss if the lifting of the headscarf ban a sign of a positive democratic process or the slow takeover of a religious autocracy?

The Issue

During the founding of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took on a series of reforms that set Turkey apart from the rest of the Middle East. One of these was setting a clear distinction between church and state. Women are not allowed to wear headscarves in state institutions as the religious symbol of the scarf violates the secular nature of the building and its purposes. Consequently, if you are a woman who wears the headscarf or turban, you must remove it before entering these spaces- this goes for primary and secondary schools as well as governmental buildings and universities. From James in Turkey:

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.”

This legal change, while on the surface has little significance in the grand scheme of Turkish politics, actually exemplifies the battle that has been raging between secularists and Islamists for decades. Very little seems to have been said on whether or not this is an advance of Islamic women's rights, rather the debate has centered on whether or not the turban is a religious or political symbol. From Ignore Me If You Can:

The turban has been a polemic since the day AKP stepped foot in the parliament. They stood against all other parties, defending the rights of women all over Turkey to cover their heads in public places, universities and government buildings. They trampled all over the laws that Ataturk built the Turkish Republic with, hiding behind human rights and even suing the country when they didn’t get the results that they wanted. Women started wearing Turbans more and more, covering themselves from head to toe, claiming that it’s not a political statement but a religious one. We could say that this issue literally tore the country in two.
One could say that we nearly believed them.

Political or Religious

The White Path attempts to answer the question – Is it a ‘political symbol?’

Well, perhaps, but only in the eyes of its haters. Polls show that virtually all females who wear the headscarf point to “religious requirements” as their motivation. Those who insist on the “political symbol” idea note that “our grandmothers” wore more lax scarves, whereas the “turban” of the urban girls and women is tighter and actually a bit more stylish. The fact is that young girls cover their heads in a different way than their grandmothers did, simply because they don't want to look like old rural women. That's why some secular sociologists have argued that the “turban” is in fact a sign of modernization – as evidenced by Turkey's “Islamic feminists” who cover their heads yet call for an end to “male-dominated Islam.”

Moreover, if the headscarf really corresponds to some political view, who knows that it is “political Islam.” Actually surveys show that the majority of the covered females in Turkey are asking for a democratic state that grants religious freedom, not a “shariah state.”

Me and Others contemplates the beauty of a woman (especially a modern Turkish woman) in a headscarf before answering the political symbol question:

so, from aestethic point of view, and of course, from a male point of view, i like the headscarf. i think there are really very pretty girls who wear the headscarf in the supposedly islamic way and look fairly attractive. and you see, this is sort of paradox because they are not supposed to look beautiful, they are supposed to hide their beauties behind the cloth. what can i say, i guess, just like everything, another tradition is just losing the game against capitalism.

but of course, just because i enjoy a turban from a male point of view does not mean that i like it from political point of view. and while it is true that not all of these girls have a political agenda and it is their right to wear whatever they want, please dont pretend that headscarf is not a political symbol, because it is. and i dont like it.

Irregardless of the symbol the turban could or could not stand for…many secularists state that if this law is approved that it will lead the way for more pro-Islamic legislation. From Amerikan Turk:

Does anyone take example from the failures and human rights issues of other Islamic states? At a time when we should be fingering Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and saying: “I never want Turkey to have those problems”, we are thrust headlong into conformance with the Islamic status quo. All it takes is baby steps.. A few ripples will swell into waves, and later into a tsunami of all the wretchedness which our Father of Turks saved us from in the first place.
Myopea reigns supreme.
Hey while we're at it, let's remove women's right to vote and make their court testimony worth 1/4 of a man's. And there's no sense making me suffer with only one wife to do all my cooking and cleaning. Why not let a few of them share the work? Go big or go home. Why only one little move in reverse? Oh yeah, because we're more easily fooled into taking metered doses of sugar coated bullshit. Would you like the red pill or the white pill, Neo?

In response, Idil from Ignore Me If You Can called the lifting of the headscarf ban as “sickening” sparking the following comment from a reader of hers:

What sickens me is that the both of you are all for freedom of speech (As am I) but against freedom of expression. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

I find the ignorance the both of you share on this topic more of an impasse on Turkey than some chick who wishes to wear a headscarf to school.

From Spooky Sense by Garfucius on the subject of freedom of expression:

just a short note on the ongoing battle of the turks over the turban, first however, alllow me to congratulate murat altınbaşak, the amerikan türk, who commented on the contrast between the turks’ battle for their freedom to give up freedom, wrapping their selves up like a constant potential sexual obsession and the emancipationist bra burning protests of 30 years ago. let me take this occasion to repeat my protest of turkey's intellligentsia and the political community, for consciously ignoring that head (or body) covering can only be considered a freedom to the extent breast baring bra burning also is!

Is this Democracy or not?

Along with the question of whether or not this issue is about freedom of speech or freedom of expression comes the question of ‘is this democracy in progress or not'? The White Path gives his answer:

These days it has become a mantra among secularists that the lifting of the headscarf ban amounts to a “regime change.” Even fellow TDN columnist Mr. Yusuf Kanlı, a most reasonable and articulate voice in that camp, was quite strong about this in his piece the other day. “Turkey is facing,” he argued, “the most important counter-revolutionary attempt in the republican era.”

I think he is right. But I also think that this is great news. Because in this country, what is dubbed as “counter-revolution” is actually democracy.

Actually my preferred term, and phenomenon, would be counter-evolution. I have never been a fan of revolutions, which violently disrupt the natural order and leave many scars and fault lines in societies. Societies should rather be allowed to evolve by their own dynamics, and social actors should try to influence, not dominate, peoples’ destinies.

That is one reason which makes me critical toward the Turkish (i.e., Kemalist) Revolution. Another one is its content, which took its principles from the radical secularism of the French Enlightenment and assimilationist nationalism of the French Republic. The former idea led to the oppression of Turkey's conservative Muslims. The latter led to denial of the Kurds.

Of course all revolutionaries say that their radicalism was absolutely necessary, and they rationalize this by depicting the pre-revolutionary era as a dark age. The Kemalists have done the same thing for the Ottoman past.

A comment on that post referred to the author as an “educated traitor” for these remarks. Erkan's Field Diary states:

let me sum up my current position: being against the headscarf ban does not necessarily make one a democrat. But defending the ban makes one not a democrat for sure. despite all possible explanations, the headscarf ban cannot be supported by any conscious democrat.

Erkan's views sparked the following comment on his post:

You are so possessive of the word “democrat”;
implying that the rest of us have to be fascist hordes if we do not support the new constitution and headscarf freedom without any worry or question. Believe it or not, majority of those protesters would not object the headscarf freedom if things could be handled with care by the government, instead of pushing it with revanchist agenda. I do not understand
why “white Turks” get ugly all the time in your and other liberal democrats’ minds. These people are not the state, not the government; they just fear and feel their life styles
are being threatened. Do not they have the right to protest without being labeled fascist? Is this too hard to empathize for you? AKP has the presidency, the government, the parliament; and many state organizations are becoming to be under their control. Yet, they are still being victimized by those “ugly white Turks”.

If you are so obsessed with democracy no matter what, why did you not even bother
to point out the irony that there was not a single female parliamentarian involved in preparations of the new constitution, mainly just for headscarf freedom. Men decide about women's clothing and this is freedom!

Again, from James in Turkey:

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.

As you can see from this post, there is no clear prevalent public opinion on the lifting of the headscarf ban in universities. Yes or no? Right or wrong? I agree with The White Path when he states that “To be sure, the whole scenery is not clear-cut between these two opposites.” The debate will continue, and I hope that it does….so comment here and keep the conversation going…

1 comment

  • I Love Your Veil

    What’s all this tale about the veil?
    Fred and Gail shout and hail
    Straw as hero
    For his hail of fire on Aïsha’s attire.
    Did Straw want Aïsha to show
    Herself from head to toe?
    Let Gail wear a mini-skirt
    For her flirt.
    And let Aïsha wear on her face
    Or on her hair
    Whatever piece
    That would bring her peace
    Vis-à-vis God and vis-à-vis Man.
    Oh, man!
    Why d’you wish her to disclose
    Her beautiful eyes and nice nose
    Or her lips or her hips
    If that belongs to her?
    Come on, Sir!
    That body you want her to show
    Is a diamond dearer than the glow
    Of the face of Marilyn Monroe!

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices!

Submitted addresses will be confirmed by email, and used only to keep you up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details.

Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site