Sitting on the bench [the headscarf ban in Turkey]

I find this topic so interesting, as its something so heavily debated in Turkish culture. Many of my less travelled friends ask me why I don’t wear a headscarf because I am half turkish, not knowing that unlike many islamic states it is not mandatory. Not only is it not mandatory, it is in some cases banned.

Turkish lady asks for Ozgurluk (Freedom)

This might strike people as confusing as its an islamic country but this is part of a great reform by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In an attempt to secularise and europeanise turkish way of life he removed articles of clothing with religious attachment from society. He did not abolish headscarves as such but made regulations that restricted religious attire of any form in public services and education. No MP, Doctor, Teacher or Student could wear these articles as they encouraged an anti-secular traditional islamic way of life. It was his decision to ensure Turkey was not non-muslim but much like western world, would have freedom of thought and choice when it came to religion. He felt freedom of religion would be repressed by an overly islamic state so banned this form of clothing.

I know this seems quite baffling. Most people of philosophy and logic would state that this ideology is fundamentally flawed by the premise that freedom of religion = repression of religious expression. These seem quite incompatible. and it would be right but as we know of many debates on concepts of freedom, religion and politics there is never  perfect answer to these questions.

What is most interesting is the social divide on this issue in turkish culture and also how much it represents their internal turmoils between holding onto their islamic identities and continuing their development to a more westernised, european country.

It’s quite hypocritical and confusing that the turkish are both muslim, anti- other religions and religious policies and pro islam, and yet at the same time do not permit many significant muslim traditions. Now I am not religious, and I believe that a world without it would be a happier one but yet, I am not entirely sure of turkish standpoint. I am not saying they should encourage more islamic practices or that they should just throw religion out the window but they are sitting on the fence, which is a very baffling place to be.

Many turkish women wear headscarves, and many who do not wear headscarves on a daily basis cover their head during funerals and practices in the mosque. People do not frown upon the scarf. Even if they are kemalist they have nothing against muslim tradition. The complications occur when these muslim traditions attempt to be solidified within law and governing documents. This is when the people for Ataturk (most of turkey) get angry.

Also, they have no issue with someone acting against Ataturks wishes by wearing these clothing articles, and they respect muslim traditions and embrace them, but they do not condone the people who do this way to openly disapprove or dislike Ataturks reforms.

Funny how the essence of this issue is a hypocrisy in itself. One of the purposes of Ataturks reforms was to create freedom of thought and yet not allowing someone to have a freedom of thought on Ataturk or the changes he made, including the headscarf ban, is restriction on freedom of thought in itself.

Lets just remember though that Ataturk did not ask Turkey to ban negative words against him, it was citizens and government on his passing that made this decision. So one could say on his passing Turkey made a significant mistake of not adhering to Ataturks changes by this restriction.

The Lady who Spoke

I remember I told this to a turkish friend of mine, and it wasn’t taken well. A video was cast of a lady who left turkey because she could not be educated in university without removing her headscarf. She was brought on national tv and slandered for the country to see.

The presenter made sure to ask questions that placed her in a situation where she either has to pretend she agreed with the headscarf ban (which is stupid because she had one on her head, and the rule had ruined her life, she clearly couldn’t say that even if she wanted to save herself) or she would have to say she didn’t agree. So obviously she stated that she disagreed, she told the truth.

Following this she was then asked whether she didn’t agree with Ataturk’s policy. She was placed in a position where nothing but bad news could arise, she had to public state she disagreed with the current policy.


(Let me know if anyone would like a translation of the interview)

My friend posted this video on facebook and called her a whore, a bitch, a cow who should get out of Turkey. Other people commented saying that if they saw her they would stab her. Such rage and passion for a women saying she disagreed with policy. And yet surely the purpose of the policy was to create freedom of religion and thought: is this not doing the opposite?

History of the headscarf ban in recent years:

  • In 1998, a Turkish student was banned for wearing a headscarf at Istanbul UniversityIn 2000, Nuray Bezirgan, a Turkish female student, wore a headscarf at her college final exams. A Turkish court sentenced her to six months jail for “obstructing the education of others”.The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2004, saying the rules on dress were “necessary” and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In October 2006, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university ban again, rejecting a complaint filed by another Turkish university student.
  • In May 1999, the ban on headscarves in the public sphere hit the headlines when Merve Kavakçı was prevented from taking her oath in the National Assembly because she wore a headscarf. She was the newly elected-MP of Istanbul of the pro-IslamistVirtue Party, and she refused demands to leave the building. The secular opposition members protested by chanting ‘out’ for 30 minutes, and the then prime minister Bülent Ecevit accused her of violating the principles of secularism.  A state prosecutor investigated whether she might be put on trial for provoking religious hatred. She received much support from Iran, by the Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and hundreds of women demonstrating in support of the deputy.
  • In October 2006, Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to allow AKP politicians whose wives wore headscarves to a ball marking Turkish independence, saying it would “compromise” and undermine the secular state founded by Atatürk
  • In March 2009, Kıymet Özgür who wore the çarşaf was attacked by CHP members when she tried to get into an election bus in Istanbul.
  • The CHP (Republican People’s Party) is a Kemalist party, however, its then leader Deniz Baykal surprised supporters by allowing those who wear the çarşaf to become members of the party in late 2008. 
  • Prime Minister Erdogan campaigned in his victorious 2007 campaign with a promise of lifting the longstanding ban on headscarves in public institutions. However, as the Turkish deputies voted in Parliament, tens of thousands protested outside in favour of the ban
  • On February 7, 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that many women would not seek an education if they could not wear the head scarf.
  • On 5 June 2008, Turkey‘s Constitutional Court annulled the parliament’s proposed amendment intended to lift the headscarf ban, ruling that removing the ban was against the founding principles of the constitution. The highest court’s decision to uphold the headscarf ban cannot be appealed

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