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The Headscarf Strikes Back

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The Headscarf Strikes Back

by J. N. Couvas 

ANKARA, Feb 6  - An agreement between ruling Justice and Development (AK) and Nationalist Action (MH) parties, and a legislative package passed Friday by a parliamentary committee and due to be adopted this week by the Turkish Grand National Assembly, seem to have paved the way to the irreversible return of the headscarf to the country’s public life.

The move was expected since the August 2007 election to the Presidency of Abdullah Gul, an AKP leader with Islamist past. But concrete steps towards its materialization started at the end of last year only, after Gul put at the helm of the Higher Education Council (YÖK) Yusuf Ziya Özcan, a trusted collaborator and outspoken supporter of the abolition of the ban of the headscarf in universities.

The matter may sound trivial, but it deeply divides the Turkish society and the political and intellectual groups. The nation having adopted secularism for the past nine decades, any attempt to revive religious symbolism in public life is considered by conservatives as drifting away from republican values and returning to the dark ages of superstition and underdevelopment, which preceded the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Although 98 percent of Turks are nominally Muslim and about half admit to be practising, a large majority subscribes the secularist doctrine of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, and support a clear division between state and religion, pretty much in the French model.

AKP, the successor to the Welfare Party, which was banned at the end of last century as reactionary because of its Islamist focus, received at the July 2007 legislatives 47 percent of the votes cast, on an agenda that contemplated, among other things, freedom of expression of religious beliefs in public.

Not all of the AKP voters are, however, Islamists. Many voted for the party because of its economic results during its tenure in government between 2002 and 2007, but have remained attached to Kemalist principles.

Contrary to popular belief, the ban of the headscarf was not imposed by Ataturk. He promulgated in 1925 a “Hat Law”, which forced male citizens to replace the traditional oriental fez with the western bowler hat, as symbol of modernity. 

While simultaneously promoting enhanced rights for Turkish women, whom he wanted to reach the standards of their European counterparts, Mustafa Kemal did not touch their attire. Most amongst them, particularly in the eastern provinces, continued to wear a basortusu, or headscarf, which covered their hair.

Wearing of the headscarf in public establishments became a political issue in the 1980s, when educated girls from provincial towns and rural areas started applying for admission to universities. Until then, higher education had been a de facto privilege for middle class secularist urban residents, who willingly dressed as westerners did. But the influx of veiled young women into universities all of a sudden sparked political controversy and led rectors to forbid enrolment of female students who adopted such gear.

 In order to preserve social peace, in 1989 the parliament, led by conservative but liberal Turgut Ozal, passed a law that allowed such students to wear the basortusu on campus. The gear is also referred to as turban, although purists insist that the word is inappropriate in the context.

The academic world did, however, not swallow the defeat. The case was brought before the Constitutional Court, which the same year repealed the law, on the ground that it violates the constitutional principles of the republic. The decision has served to date as legal basis for the ban of the headscarf in all schools and universities.

As a result, the lifting of the ban cannot be legislated by simple parliamentary law-making procedure and needs a revision of the Turkish Constitution’s articles 10 and 42. In order to secure the majority required in parliament to amend the Constitution, AKP joined forces with MHP to avoid a painful adoption process, as the one that marred last April the initial attempt to have Gul elected as President of the country. In spite of some differences on technicalities, the two parties reached an agreement last week.

The changes proposed consist of adding to article 10 the sentence: "In all their actions, state institutions and administrative bodies shall observe the principle of equality before the law." Article 42 will be amended to include: “No one shall be deprived of the right to education because of their apparel.” 

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J N Couvas is an academic, journalist, and an international corporate and political adviser, specialising in Middle East and Balkan affairs. He teaches international strategy and executive leadership at universities in the region.

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