H E A D S C A R F D E A D L O C K I N T U R K E Y A S A C A S E S T U D Y
Bu tebliğ, International Institute For Muslim Unity/ International Islamic
University Malaysia’nın tertip ettiği “THE SOCIAL STATUS OF MUSLIM
WOMEN IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY” başlıklı uluslararası konferansta
14-16 Ağustos 2007 tarihinde Kuala Lumpur’da sunulmuştur.
HEADSCARF DEADLOCK IN TURKEY AS A CASE STUDY
By Dr. Serdar Demirel
(Department of General Studies, KIRKHS, International Islamic University Malaysia)
Islamic dress-code has been a real conflict between the state and the wider society in
Turkey since the new republic accepted old French model of secularism as its regime.
Later on Turkey added new dimensions to its adopted secularism. Nowadays,
Turkey’s brand of secularism is amongst the most extreme and inflexible in the world
and according to this, religion must be kept under firm state and/or secular control.
Therefore Muslim women’s headscarf (or hijab) is prohibited in the universities and
various official institutions. And those groups with close connections (institutional or
ideological) to the state apparatus have been closely monitoring headscarf practice
among the Turkish Muslim women. They claim that the reason behind the prohibition
of the headscarf is not primarily a religious, but a political symbol. It is unnecessary
to say that to them headscarf is symbol of backwardness.
This prohibition unfortunately, has led the country to many crises, especially in social,
political as well as economical life. Indeed, the main victim of this conflict is
obviously Muslim women.
Enforcement of the headscarf ban has been tightened since 1997 when the powerful
military launched a harsh secularist campaign and ousted Prime Minister Necmettin
Erbakan. Since then, the headscarf has become the object of one of Turkey's most
divisive struggles, as the country seeks to join the European Union and the globalized
economy. Despite its vital importance, the issue of headscarf hasn’t been very much
addressed by Muslims in writings. Several articles, however, have been written by
some prominent Turkish intellectuals.
In this humble paper I have tried to analyze the factors of the conflict between social
periphery of Turkish society and the state center which is monopolized by the
republican elite and the impact of headscarf ban on the status of Muslim women in
Turkey, from social, educational and political perspectives within local and global
realities and prospects.
In order to understand the social status of Muslim women in Turkey and examine
their realities we need to look at historical background of the issue at least in brief.
The Ottoman State maintained its sovereign existence for over six centuries from
1299 to 1922. The year 29 October 1923 was very significance turning point for
Turkish society due to it marks the founding of the Republic of Turkey as a nation-
state after the fall of the Ottoman State.
This is because a religious society would be forced to transform itself into Western-
like society within the secular paradigm in the name of attainment of contemporary
level of civilization, by which Western civilization was obviously meant.
The process of modernization, actually, started long before the Republic of Turkey
especially at early eighteenth century with the dating of the Ottoman decline.1
However, this did not mean paradigm shift for that time, but to maintain its sovereign
existence, and attainment of acceptability to the advancing West.2
The founders of the new Republic rejected the entire legacy of Ottomans and carried
out radical reforms and structural change by means of reforms which are called
“Kemalist Revolutions”3 in order to create a secular republic and westernized society.
The notion of an Islamic state or continuity of Ottoman State was anathema to them.
They viewed such a state as the way to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the
backwardness of Turkey. They wanted to see Turkey transformed into a modern
nation state which lives as an advanced and civilized nation in the midst of
contemporary civilization. Such a nation would have to be secular and rational,
emphasizing science and modern education in order to create a modern industrial
To achieve their goals and objectives, they adopted a two pronged strategy:
Transformation of the entire socio-political structure according to modern Western
norms and values, on the one hand; and, a complete violent break with the immediate
past, and assertion of identity with ancient Anatolian civilization on the other hand.
Therefore, many attempts were made to prove that Sumerians, the Trojans, and the
Hittites who were Turkish origin, and that the Western civilization, too, owed its
existence and progress to the Turks. 5
The main idea was to cut off the links of the people with their past for the sake of
inculcation of Western values into Turkish society. They thought that if the society
continues to keep in touch with the past, i.e. Islamic values, modernization process
will fail. For this purpose radical reforms had to be taken even it might be very
Therefore, on 3 March 1924, the Grand National Assembly deposed the caliph, and
abolished the Caliphate. The abolition of the Caliphate was the prelude to the
programme of radical secularism6, The Ministry of Religious Affairs was disbanded,
the historic office of Sheikh of Islam ceased to exist, the revenues of the Pious
Foundations were confiscated; and all religious schools were transferred to the secular
schools with a scientific positivist curriculum, the religious courts of the Shariah
which related to matters such as marriage status, divorce and inheritance, were closed,
Roderic H. Davison, Turkey A Short History, (The Eothen Press, 1988), p. 67-90.
Rai Shakil Aktar, Turkey In New World Perspective, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore), p. 18.
It refers to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, (Routledge, London and New York, 1993), p. 53
Rai Shakil Aktar, Turkey In New World Perspective, p. 30.
Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, p. 54.
civil marriage replaced religious marriage and a Civil Code based on that of the Swiss
planned to prevail over all7, the Turkish Criminal Code was imported from the Italian
Penal Code and the German Code of Criminal Procedure was adopted by Turkish.
Obviously, the reforms began with a modern constitution, by adapting the European
laws and jurisprudence.
Meanwhile, the reformist even changed the letters from Arabic characters to the
Roman alphabet which temporarily rendered the whole population illiterate. The
elimination of words of Arabian and Persian origin, changing from the lunar calendar
to the solar calendar, using family names instead of religious titles, the substitution of
Sunday as a holiday instead of Friday are clear examples of moving Turkish society
toward secular society.
In brief, above reforms and others achieved the secularization of the judicial system
completely. Despite of the reforms, Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution said, `The
religion of the Turkish State is Islam.' But, in 1928 this clause was deleted and all
other expressions and references to religion were removed from the Constitution.8
One of the most important and symbolic reform was the dress code reform which
promoted aggressively by the state. The founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk had declared the new quot;dress code reformquot;, in Kastamonu in 1925.
According to this new reform the fez was abolished, and men had to dress European-
style hats rather than the fez. The fez ban is still today exist and no one is permitted to
Furthermore, the new dress code also banned women to wear the veil in public space.
The republic elite considered the fez and the veil as a symbol of the old caliphate,
which contradict the goal and objective of modernization and secularization. For them
the appearance of women serves as a particularly potent symbol of the nature of the
The new dress code, particularly for women, would create very serious tension
between the state and the society. Because Turkish society as a whole did not need or
neither had the desire to change their dress style which was designed according to
Islamic teaching and the local tradition.
The progress in line with the reforms were too rapid. Turkish evolution effectively
abolished centuries-old traditions in order to modernize Turkey, yet, the vast majority
of the population were unaccustomed and were not willing to adopt all reforms. It was
urban elites the true beneficiary of the reforms rather than the generally illiterate
inhabitants of the rural countryside.9
Indeed, it was not easy task to replace religious sentiments and customs that existed
for centuries with a new world view’s sentiments. Particularly, reforms related to
Islam met with opposition; and to this day, they continue to generate social and
Therefore, the common perception was that Islam was in danger and jeopardy, and in
order to assert who they were, the only solution was to resist the reforms in many
forms with particular reference to the dress code of woman and which was strongly
resisted by people in the society. Since then the dress code reform for women was and
is one of the main problems in between the state and common people.
In short, the process of modernization in Turkish society was a traumatic story about
to forget the past, it aimed to eliminate religious and traditional values, and replace
Lord Kinross, Ataturk: the rebirth of a nation, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), p. 386-387.
Rai Shakil Aktar, Turkey In New World Perspective, p.32-33.
Lord Kinross, Ataturk: the rebirth of a nation, p.503.
them with Western life style and ideology in the name of progress. This project of
social engineers was successful especially among the urban educated people. They
never believed in possibility of multiple modernities such as integrity of Islam with
science for progress and development.
After many painful reforms the republic elite started to think that Islam replaced with
the modern way of life which is based on so called scientific realities, but, later on a
new challenge emerged. This time it is associated with the new educated social class
which emigrated from rural areas to urban.
And this time the same tension inevitably arose through the debate about meaning of
the secularism and the dress code.
Turkey's Secularism Crisis
The constitution of the Republic of Turkey states, in article 2, the characteristics of
the Republic as ”a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law;
bearing in mind the concepts of public peace, national solidarity and justice;
respecting human rights; loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, and based on the
fundamental tenets set forth in the Preamble.”
The Preamble also establishes the principle of secularism, whereby there is to be no
interference whatsoever of sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics.11
One thinks that if the secularism is this much important for the state, therefore, its
definition must be crystal clear for everyone, at least in the constitution, nevertheless,
it is not. Though the hot debates on the definiton was existed since the Rebulic was
In fact, it is vital to have clear definition about secularism to avoid subjective
interpretation, specially in the constitution, among the political parties and the
If the secularism is that it is a matter of “separation of state and religious affairs”, then
this has never been a reality in the Turkish case. As I mentioned earlier that after the
abolition of the Caliphate, The Ministry of Religious Affairs was disbanded, the
historic office of Sheikh of Islam ceased to exist and in their place two separate
offices were established, a Presidency for Religious Affairs (Diyanet şleri
Başkanlığı) and a Directorate-General of Pious Foundations (Evkaf Umum
Müdürlüğü). The head of Religious Affairs was nominated by the Prime Minister of
the secular state, to whose department he and his office were attached.12
This has been done because the reformist knew very well that they would not be able
to eliminate religion from the heart of the people. Their belief was, if you fail to
eliminate the religion, then you can control it. This is the actual meaning of
secularism in Turkish society.
Based on above fact, Professor Doğu Ergil says: “Religion has always been under
state control. In fact all mosques are staffed by official imams appointed and paid by
the government. Their work is overseen by provincial muftis attached to the Religious
Affairs Directorate, whose head has the powers of a Cabinet minister. Public sermons
are prepared by this administration, whose budget is second only to the armed
Hence, it is clear to everyone in Turkey that secularism doesn’t mean a total
separetion of religion and the state in the country, however, the real dispute is in what
See: Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, (Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 413.
Doğu Ergil, Structural crisis, (Today’s Zaman, 16.05.2007).
extent the state should control the religion? This dispute ignite another hot issue, that
is to whom the public sphere belongs, does it belong to people or to the state?
The answer to this question is directly related to the headscarf ban. In the sense that, if
the public sphere belongs to the state, in that case, the state can ban the headscarf if it
considers it necessary. Needless to say that there are secular democrats who believe
that public sphere is not a state area. They have nothing to do with the headscarf ban.
Therefore, I would like to shed light briefly on the group who believe in that public
sphere is a state area as well as their arguments.
Public Sphere Dispute
Obviously, there are two main groups in this dispute. The first group’s positon is
ideological one while the second group’s sutruggle is depend on class differences. Let
us start with the first group.
Indeed, the first group includes affluent, university-educated, Westernized elite,
which dominates the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the Education and
Foreign Affairs Ministry; in general they represent the secular establishment, and
holding on to its deep-seated power positions in and around the state institutions. This
establishment is also called “the deep state” by Turkish media which believes that
they are the owner of the state.
Furthermore, they consider that Turkey does not have the luxury of having a
democracy14, since the Kemalist revolution has not yet been completed. In order to
complete the revolution, the state must control religion and the public sphere. They
firmly believe in anti-democratic social engineering.
These bureaucratic oligarchs and their overenthusiastic supportters in elite circles are
the main power behind the headscarf ban in Turkey.
They claim that they limit freedom of pious people due to protect secularism and
Westernize them for attainment of contemporary level of civilization. They don’t feel
how much they look like civilized in Western world. Here is example of imitation
Western people and culture according to Andrew, he describes Turkish secularism as
folloved: “Secularism has remained more of a nationalistic than democratic concept in
Turkey, not a means of securing rights so much as excluding what the state sees as
wrong. Since Ataturk's death in 1938, the Kemalist philosophy has become the state's
quasi-religion with Ataturk as its undisputed prophet. Headscarves, for example, are
not allowed in government or civic buildings, including schools and universities,
while Ataturk's likeness enjoys ubiquity on posters, badges and even in the corner of
TV screens. And it is the military that is the vigilant and ruthless protector of
Ataturk's image and legacy.”15
Here an example to what kind of secularism the republican elite believe. Sumru
Çörtoğlu, the President of the Council of State, just recently could claim in the name
of secularism that there is to be no interference whatsoever of sacred religious
feelings in state affairs, laws, education and even in culture.16
Who can justify the claim that the culture must be secularized? Culture belongs to the
people and it isn’t a state affairs, but this type of secularism is the root of the problem.
They consider their understanding of secularism as end of the history and unalterable.
Our democratic republic as it is stated in the constitution has been turned to a
“dogmatic” republic by endeavors of this group.
Hasan Cemal, Tank sesi, postal sesi!, (Milliyet, 29.05.2007).
Andrew Anthony, A fight for the soul of the new Turkey, (The Observer, Sunday, 20. 05. 2007).
Ortadoğu Gazetesi, 11.05.2007: http://www.ortadogugazetesi.net/habergoster.asp?id=7286
They openly claim that Atatürk’s revolutions which provide “modern way of life” to
Turkish people unalterable and will live forever. The irony is here they characterize
modernity unchangeable which is against the nature of modernity as modernity itself
is a state of constant change. For modernity everything is subject to change and
anything which is not open to change, then it is a dogma. They expect the people to
surrender to their dogmas for the sake of so called “modern life”. Therefore, they
measure Turkey’s development through criteria of the dress code.
According to Nicole Pope that many Turks continue to measure their country’s
development through the narrow criteria of the dress code, and only women who have
rejected the headscarf fit their criteria of modernity. Then, she expresses her
astonishments with the words: “Personally, I have always been perplexed by this
understanding of modernity and its inherent contradictions. How can a system that
values women’s education also deny young girls access to universities because they
wear a headscarf?”17
Here, I would like to remind you the notorious “convincing rooms” which is a good
example about how they try to attain the contemporary level of civilization!
Well-known lady Professor Nur Serter, the ex vice rector of Istanbul University who
was surprisingly, one of the champion of the headscarf ban, established “convincing
rooms” at her university where headscarf-wearing girls were encouraged to uncover
their heads and those who refused to do so dismissed from the university.
By the way, their practice is refused by the majority of Turkish people. Turkey’s
Constitution openly declares that sovereignty belongs without any reservation or
condition to the nation.”18 They claim they are republicans despite their refusal of the
will of the people. That is to remember the old dictum, “For the people; in spite of the
There are many surveys in which the views of Turkish people on headscarf ban have
been investigated and they show where will of the nation lie.
One of the most important polls taken on the subject of freedom of religion and
conscience in Turkey is the ‘Religion, Society and Politics in Turkey’ titled
research study that was made in February 1999 in order to investigate
relationship between religion and social and political manners and behaviors.
This task has been accomplished by financial support of the Foundation for Social and
Economic Studies (TESEV), and with the academic skills of the researchers from The
Bosporus University (Boğaziçi Üniversitesi), which is a state university and
internationally recognized for its success.
The research of TESEV gives a general idea as to what Turkish people think on the
headscarf ban, what is their position toward it.
In this research which has been recognized as a serious and scientific statistic, the
percentage of people who agree that not allowing students to enter school with
headscarf is wrong is 76%, on the other hand, the percentage of those who do not find
it wrong is only 16%. Rate of people who agree with the statement ‘Female
government officials should be allowed cover their heads if they want’ is 74.2%.
The questions designed to measure the dimensions of the so-called balkanization of
the public have yielded results that show that no such great divisions exist. For
instance, to the question of “Would you feel disturbed if the majority of your city or
town consisted of women and young ladies who wear headscarves?” 83.5% have
Nicole Pope, Defining modernity, (Today’s Zaman, 08.05.2007).
given the answer “No”. The percentage of those who say that they would be disturbed
is only 12.8%.
The questions pertaining to women, by the expression of researchers show that the
majority of Turkish women wear headscarves. The rate of women who say they don’t
wear headscarves when they go out is only 27.3%, whereas 53.4% say that they wear
headscarves, 15.7% they wear turban. Among the men who give answer to the
question, the rate of men who say their spouse doesn’t wear a headscarf is only
Half of Turkish people (50.2%) believe that religious people are oppressed, nearly
65% of those who think that religious people are oppressed with particular reference
to the headscarf ban.
The research shows that people are tolerant towards one another and that they have no
problems among themselves.19
For data-based discussion, we should take into consideration the latest survey
published in 2006 by the same organization (TESEV) which reveals that, although
64% of women wear headscarf, since 1999 it has not increased but decreased by 9%
and those who support an Islamic state is only 9 percent, as opposed to over 21
percent six years ago. Yet the proportion of those who say religion is important in
their lives has increased during the same period.20
In my humble opinion that this highlights another contradictory reality of the Turkish
society about how they conceive Islam, however, it needs another discussion.
According to the study the most significant decline in women’s covering has been
occurred in 18-24 age groups. Of course this is because of outcome of headscarf ban
in universities where women who cover have to stop covering in order to enroll there.
Anyhow, the result of the latest survey was exactly what the republican elite wanted,
and that result should make them happy, but they are not, instead they still feel under
threat and continue to claim that “the number of covered women is increasing”. This
assumption is not actually based on any data or solid proof that can be proved
The bureaucratic oligarchs and their supportters in elite circles never trusted the
people and have been scaring them seriously because, they believe that people will
abuse their secular regime. So, they ban headscarf in public sphere on the basis of
protecting secularism and to control religion. According to them religion is only a
matter for heart and conscience. Therefore, it should not be in the public sphere. They
firmly believe in it. This is because they fail to understand what kind of religion Islam
Meanwhile, Ihsan Yılmaz, a columnist for Today’s Zaman, mentioned to their poor
understandig of Islam in one of his article in which he says that if we look at the five
pillars of Islam, they are all about public life. 1- manifesting and witnessing that God
is one; 2- saying prayers with the community in mosques, which is why we have the
call to prayer that our laicists do not like; 3- fasting to empathize with the needy; 4-
giving alms to the poor; and 5- going to pilgrimage to meet co-religionists from all
over the world. Islam is about both the inner and outer worlds of an individual. All
what is needed in Turkish society is freedom of religion as practiced in, say, the
United Kingdom, whose government sends a team of medical doctors and nurses
every year to accompany British Muslim pilgrims.21
Foundation of Social and Economic Studies in Turkey (TESEV), survey titled ‘Religion, community,
and politics in Turkey’ dated as February 1999.
Ihsan Yılmaz, Turkish neocons, war on ‘Islamism’ and AK Party, (Today’s Zaman, 13.05.2007).
To put in a nutshell this gorup is against for definition of secularism in the
constitution so that they can explain it as they wish and accordingly limit freedom of
Headscarf As A Mean Of Class Struggle
In recent months, whole world witnessed huge demonstrations in big cities of Turkey
via international media in which Turkish secular women wearing mini-skirts and
carrying flags and posters expressing their worries over their “lifestyle” in the future
and shouting “No to the EU!”, “No to USA”, and “No to Shariah Law”.
People across the world failed to understand the paradox that this segment of Turkish
society popularly known as “White Turks” in domestic debate call upon the military
to intervene in politics. On the other hand, other segment of the society known as
“Black Turks” with headscarf and conservative values demand the military stay out of
politics and support Turkey’s full membership for EU.
The same paradox can be easily seen in Turkish politics while so-called Islamist
Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is in favor of EU membership, but the well
known secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP) founded by Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk, the champion of the Westernization process, on the other hand, tries to keep
Turkey away from EU membership and opposes for applying its criteria in the
How can we understand the paradox of these social classes who attached the West
ideologically opposes the West, while, the largest, but, lower class of the society with
conservative values who are naturally considered as anti-West in values but in favor
of the West? This is the real dilemma of Turkey.
Although answer to this question seems very difficult but, in the matter of fact, it is
not. It is because the conflict in the society, in a large extent, simply depends on class
differences22 i.e. in between the centre and the periphery. The centre represented by
The White Turks who enjoy the power of the state and the periphery represented by
the Black Turks who are the victim of this power.
Interestingly, democratic process of the country from very beginning was in the
interest of the conservative periphery rather than the Westernized centre. They
discovered that the democratic process is the only suitable mean for them to change
their social status. This reality led majority of them to support EU membership and
democratic system despite they were aware of that Europe is a different civilization.
Furthermore, they believed in good relations with EU which would bring its values
like democracy, freedom and prosperity. It was only true mean to establish the idea of
the sovereignty of the majority in the country.
Exactly for this same reason the White Turks opposed to EU process. This is because
that EU process means for them a huge lost of power over the system. The only way
to keep the periphery away from the centre is to oppose democracy and criteria of EU
and call upon the military to intervene in politics.23
Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is a major carrier of the periphery to the
center since its establishment. But visibility of the periphery in the public sphere with
their symbolic cultural tenets, especially women’s headscarf was a tool for the White
Turks to alarm the central forces.
Ali Bulaç, Oldu mu şimdi? (Zaman Gazetesi, 22.05.2007); Mustafa Akyol, Laikliği asıl 'laikçiler'
ihlal ediyor, (Radikal Gazetesi, 18.05.2007).
See Fikret Başkaya, Cumhuriyet Mitinglerinin gerçek amacı ne? Tehlikede olan laiklik değil,
elitlerin iktidarı (I), (Zaman Gazetesi, 09. 05.2007).
People’s Republican Party (CHP) the champion of democracy and secularism in
Turkey, badly weakened Turkish democracy when it aligned with the army and the
Constitutional Court, the two institutions that have helped the prohibition of headscarf
in order to preserve Turkey's secular identity.
That is why Ak Party on behalf ot the concervative segment of the society advocated
Westernization along with the EU accession process, introduced radical political
reforms in the field of human rights, strengthened the market economy and engaged in
an aggressive privatization program.
Hence, Faruk Birtek, a sociology professor and a sort of benign Kemalist said to one
of his Westerner friend that so-called Islamists are more democratic than the
secularists in Turkey. For him it's what Hegel would call a contradiction without a
To clarify dimension of social class differences I would like to highlight here a
phenomenon which indicates nature of the conflict. The republican elite are not
uncomfortable with all women wearing headscarf such as cleaning women,
maidservants, women workers, peasant, etc. But, they are uncomfortable with those
women wearing headscarf who are educated, engaged in society and politics.
Because, they perceive their existence in active social life as a challenge to their elite
position by representing an alternative modern image and identity.
Why Muslim Women Insist To Wear Headscarf
We have seen in above discussion the position of those who are behind the headscarf
ban and how they consider dress code of women as a matter of ideology.
It is strange to witness that the accuser on behalf of the state ideology never ask the
accused what does their dress code mean? Why Muslim women insist to wear
headscarf? Do they wear it because of its symbolic dimension? Are they rebellious
trying to change the political system in the country through this sacred symbol? Does
headscarf mean rebellion against those in authority or against the rules?
We may find some marginal groups in the society who consider headscarf a mean of
rebellion against the system but for overwhelming majority of Muslim women
wearing headscarf, it is not a way of rebellion, but it is just a religious obligation.25
According to Professor Ali Bardakoğlu who is the President of Religious Affairs of
Turkey, he explained the Presidency’s stance in debates concerning the ban on
wearing headscarves in state institutions and schools. He clearly said:
“.. The extreme and private beliefs of people are not important. What is really
important is the 14-century-long Islamic experience. Muslim men and women have
seen the headscarf as a religious requirement until now. There was no political angle
in the past. Muslim women used to cover themselves due to their religious beliefs.
When examining a religion, you have to take into account experiences, the living
religion and socialogical considerations..”26
Allah (SWT) said in His Holy Book: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their
gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what
(ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms..” (An-Nur: 24/31)
And Allah (SWT) said in another chapter: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing
women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when out of doors): that is most
convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most
Merciful.” (Al-Ahzáb: 33/59)
Ali Bardakoğlu, Religion and Society, (Presidency of Religious Affairs, Ankara, 2006), p. 137-138.
Anyone who has minimun information about Islam knows that the hearscarf is not
somthing innovation in Islam rather it is a religious requirement as stated in the Holy
Book of Islam and Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and with the unanimous
verdict of the Muslim scholar for the centuries. It is not something up to Muslim
individual to change or to ignore the divine command. Based on this fact Muslims,
either men or women have seen the headscarf as a religious requiremeet not only in
Turkey but in all Muslim contries as well. That is why Muslims can not give up the
headscarf whatever the pressure.
Beside this requirement, Muslim women believe that Islam supports women to get
proper education, be active in social life beside women's central role in the family. So
they struggle in order to take an active role in modern life but, within their values and
belief. Unfortunately, the republican elite don’t look at what Muslim women have in
their mind rather they look at what they have on their head.
Moreover, they don’t see –or I may say they don’t want to see- what is going on at
global level and what is the global trends among the follower of different cultures and
religions. People from all over the world have attempted to return to their roots, to
face the challenge of worldly modern life. Instead of addressing the new trend they
prefer to put pressure on it.
They fail to understand wearing the headscarf is the acceptable way for Muslim
women to take part in modern life and it is not a demand for backwardness.
According to Nilüfer Göle27 wearing headscarf for Muslim women is a way of being
in the public in an Islamic way i.e., to be in the universities, to enter the parliament as
deputies, and to pursue their professional career. All this means a kind of public
participation of these women to social and public life. It is not only politics as we
understand it; it's larger than that, more cultural. So in that respect, they try to be
present in social life, in public life with their religious values. This is a different kind
of experience of modernity which is an alternative to the republican elite’s
Yet, the state denies their right of education and active role in public life if they
choose to wear headscarves. They force them to ignorance in the name of
enlightenment. Millions of people are victims of this prohibition directly or indirectly
in contemporary Turkey. Let us give some well known examples of this painful
Obviously, the world has recently witnessed on April 2007, how the country's top
generals threatened through e-memorandum to overthrow the elected government
under the guise of protecting quot;secularismquot;.
The primary reason behind the military intervention was due to nomination of the
foreign minister Abdullah Gül as the country’s next president mainly because of his
wife’s attire, particularly her headscarf.
The Constitutional Court, for many people under the influence of military power,
invalidated Parliament's vote for foreign minister Abdullah Gül on the technical
grounds that it lacked a two-thirds quorum something that had never been a disputed
She is professor of sociology at Bosphorous University in Istanbul and a well-known expert on the
political movement of today's educated, urbanized, religious Muslim women. She is the author of The
Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling.
Nilüfer Göle, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling, (The University of Michigan Press,
issue before. As we know that earlier presidents had been elected without the presence
of two-thirds of the 550-member Parliament. This is despite his party has proven the
most liberal and democratic government in Turkish history in many ways, increasing
freedom of speech, successfully encouraging girls to go to school, and making
progress to join the European Union.
As it is seen in this case, men are too victims of the prohibition of headscarf directly
or indirectly for being married to someone who chooses to wear the headscarf.
Another internationally known example is, Merve Kavakçı, US educated software
engineer who was the first woman wearing the headscarf, elected as a deputy to the
legislature expelled from parliament by force, in May 1999, and after eleven days of
this incident, she lost her Turkish citizenship. Two years later, the Constitutional
Court of Turkey shut down the Virtue Party to which she belonged because of
supporting the headscarf cause.
Ironically, The main distress of headscarf ban is in educational field. It was mainly
started with a circular following rectorship elections in 1998, first in Istanbul
University and later in other universities. The women who have chosen to wear
headscarf are denied opportunities to go to universities since then. Prior to this time, it
was partially free in some universities.
This problem could not have been solved in Turkish courts despite many attempts.29
For this reason one of the victim of this ban, Leyla Şahin who was a fifth-year female
medical student at the faculty of medicine of the University of Istanbul, brought a suit
to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey for
upholding the decision of the University to prohibit her from taking exams or
attending lectures while wearing her headscarf. On 10 November 2005 the Court
ruled that the obstruction of Leyla Şahin’s education by means of the headscarf ban in
Turkish Universities is acceptable in a democratic society.
The Court’s decision unfortunately strengthened hand of the headscarf prohibiters in
Turkey and give them a false legal ground instead of helping to improve human rights
and defend the victim. Not allowing women to choose their dress freely, depriving
them of their right to education, their freedom of religion and conscience, and their
right to privacy constitute state discrimination against women.
Judging the situation in Turkey in a subjective manner damaged good image of the
European Court of Human Rights not only in Turkey but in all Muslim countries. For
Muslim, religious women once again became the object of discrimination.
These are just a few examples of headscarf ban victims but, real extent of suffering of
the victims is not measurable and it is still a problem which needs a quick solution in
the area of democracy, rights and religious freedom.
Despite its apparently legal character, in fact it is a political problem. See for the legal evaluation of
the ban, the article titled as, Headscarf Problem in Turkey: Juridical or Political? By Prof. Dr. Mustafa
It is clear that emancipation of Turkish women or their bodies are being used at the
internal political conflict by the secularist. In their view, dress style of women can’t
be decided by themselves, but, rather, it should be decided by the state. It is not an
exaggeration to say that women are seen as the object of political and social conflict,
but not the subject of their own will. The claim, protection of secular women’s right,
turn to a tool to oppress other women, i.e. the religious women.
We have to accept that woman's body should not be a symbolic field in which the
ideology of the state is written. Women's own interpretation about the meaning of
their appearances and actions have to be prior over others understanding.
It is undeniable fact that, Turkey has been passing through a social change for last
decades; like all social changes it is very painful process when the guardians of the
status quo are trying to resist the demand of change. The social change which Turkey
has experienced is indeed very complicated and deep. From a sociological point of
view a new elite basically from the periphery, with conservative values emerging
insist to get whatever they deserve in education, bureaucracy and politics. These
demands are definitely their constitutional rights. But the republican elites who
represent the centre can’t say “no” to these demands, so, they fight back through
pretext of protecting secularism which at the end alienates the state to common
Based on above fact we humbly can recommend coming points for the solution of the
It seems that an agreement can’t be reached because neither side will change its
demands or accept any of the demands of the other side related to the headscarf.
However in order to tackle the deadlock some steps can be taken.
First, secularism must be redefined according to requirement of so called civilized
world. Scular state, accordingly must be neutral in front of all religions and different
world views. For instance, in the debate about the appropriateness of covered women
vs. Western-style clothing, the state must be neutral and can not take part in favor of
Second, the headscarf issue must be internationalized through international
institutions and human rights and Civil rights organizations.
The European Convention on Human Rights, as it is known, largely influenced by the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its article 9 can be a gateway for the sides of
the conflict for the time being.
Article 9 states in paragraph 1: quot;Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief
and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to
manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observancequot;.
This Article proceeds to state in paragraph 2, which has assumed central importance
recently, quot;Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such
limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the
interest of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the
protection of the rights and freedoms of othersquot;.30
Bringing awareness to human rights, and particularly religious freedoms issues in the
international area, the article 9 can be useful since all of the members of the European
Council have proceeded to sign the Convention. Let us not forget that Turkey is in
process of accession to the EU and its criteria have binding nature on Turkey.
Finally, Turkey's army should be placed under civil control, like all armies in EU
member states and Turkey should not be an exceptional case for international
Secularism has turned into another form of fundamentalism that trumps other values,
not only religious, but, democracy too. The old French model secular understanding
had been turned into a huge obstacle in front of the social peace and harmony as well
as for the prosperity.
- Ali Bardakoğlu, Religion and Society, (Presidency of Religious Affairs,
- Ali Bulaç, Oldu mu şimdi? (Zaman Gazetesi, 22.05.2007).
- Andrew Anthony, A fight for the soul of the new Turkey, (The Observer,
- Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, (Oxford University Press,
- The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey:
- Doğu Ergil, Structural crisis, (Today’s Zaman, 16.05.2007).
- Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, (Routledge, London and New
- Fikret Başkaya, Cumhuriyet Mitinglerinin gerçek amacı ne? Tehlikede olan
laiklik değil, elitlerin iktidarı (I), (Zaman Gazetesi, 09. 05.2007).
- Foundation of Social and Economic Studies in Turkey (TESEV), survey titled
‘Religion, community, and politics in Turkey’ dated as February 1999.
- Hasan Cemal, Tank sesi, postal sesi!, (Milliyet, 29.05.2007).
- Ihsan Yılmaz, Turkish neocons, war on ‘Islamism’ and AK Party, (Today’s
- Lord Kinross, Ataturk: the rebirth of a nation, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
- Mustafa Akyol, Laikliği asıl 'laikçiler' ihlal ediyor, (Radikal Gazetesi,
- Prof. Dr. Mustafa Erdoğan, Headscarf Problem in Turkey: Juridical or
- Nicole Pope, Defining Modernity, (Today’s Zaman, 08.05.2007).
- Nilüfer Göle, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling, (The
University of Michigan Press, 1996).
- Ortadoğu Gazetesi, 11.05.2007:
- Rai Shakil Aktar, Turkey In New World Perspective, (Sang-e-Meel
- Roderic H. Davison, Turkey A Short History, (The Eothen Press, 1988).
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