Unwrapping Turkey’s turban troubles

To understand Turkey, we need to look beyond the black-and-white reactions to the lifting of the headscarf ban in universities.

Nathalie Rothschild

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On Saturday, the Turkish parliament voted to lift a ban on the wearing of headscarves at state universities. The country is said to be divided on the issue, with fears that the vote indicates a shift to a more religious society. But the changes in the country are much more complex than is often suggested.

Women have been banned from covering their heads in all state offices and institutions in Turkey for decades, and in the 1980s the headscarf, or turban as it’s called in Turkey, was also prohibited at state universities; it was declared a symbol of political Islam and a threat to secularism. Last week, the Turkish parliament voted for lifting the ban on religious garb in universities. On Saturday, a second round of votes on a bill to amend two articles of the constitution in order to lift the ban was passed by 411 votes to 103. The ruling, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has said regulations will be issued forbidding women to wear face-covering veils or full-length chadors on campus, and female professors and civil servants will still be subject to the headscarf ban.

According to Turkish newspaper headlines, the move has divided the country. While the AKP entered into an alliance with a right-wing party in order to pass the reform, the Republican People’s Party, the main secular opposition, has vowed to appeal this weekend’s vote in Turkey’s Constitutional Court, a pro-secular institution. Some academics and judicial officials have promised a long struggle against the reform, while others support it as an expansion of freedom. In Istanbul, there was a demonstration against the ban, while in Ankara, 76 NGOs led a rally opposing the constitutional reform.

Listening to debates and conversations this weekend in Istanbul, the reactions to the constitutional amendments certainly seemed polarised, with some arguing that prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has set Turkey on to a path of social equality, and others proclaiming that he is slowly but surely steering the republic into an Iranian-style regime. ‘Next time you visit we might all be wearing headscarves’, a worried friend told me. Another friend said that all forward-thinking people in Turkey are worried about the religious conservatism of the AKP and its followers. The government might even ditch the effort to join the European Union (EU), he claimed, if it comes under too much pressure to sacrifice its religious agenda.

Yet it is not entirely clear who is truly on the side of progress in this debate, though all parties claim to be advocating it. There are, as Mick Hume has pointed out on spiked, deep divisions in Turkish society. And these do not simply run along a straight secular v religious line (see Time to ‘talk turkey’ about Turkey – and the EU, by Mick Hume). Depicting Turkey as a country that has been divided by a polarised debate on the headscarf obscures both the more complex mixed allegiances of its inhabitants and the fact that religious dress in itself is not so much a serious issue as a powerful symbol clutched on to by everyone from Islamists to secularists in order to express their respective visions and disgruntlements over the future of Turkey.

In Turkey and abroad, the AKP’s rise to power has been cast as a regression into Islamist rule in a country that has emphasised (often with force) secularism as a cornerstone of society since 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ‘father of the Turks’, established the Turkish republic. But the secularist establishment, with the military prominent, favours a top-down imposition of its values – and bans and military coups are hardly the methods for building a true democracy. The army sees itself as a guardian of Turkish secularism. To this end, it kicked governments out of power in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. When, in 2007, the AKP nominated Abdullah Gül – then foreign minister whose wife wears the headscarf – as state president, the military warned that it would not hesitate to step in to defend the secular system.

The sign on a stone arch near Dolmabahçe (a European-style palace in Istanbul and the death place of Atatürk), which reads ‘we love democracy and the republic’, expresses the preference for pounding the nation’s official values into the heads of citizens rather than allowing them the freedom to shape the future politics of Turkey as they see fit. Those who still wish to see Atatürk’s image on the walls of every office, shop and government institution can hardly be said to be the vanguards of progress.

Many of the Westernised urbanites who are up in arms about the constitutional changes often chose to uphold the values of the centralised Kemalist system rather than formulating a truly progressive and democratic vision for Turkey. At the rally in Ankara, for instance, protesters held up photos of Atatürk and many seem to view the lifting of the ban as a betrayal of the republic’s history.

In fact, the AKP, since it came into power in 2002, has made a point of not provoking secularists and has, until now, avoided relaxing Turkey’s laws banning the headscarf in state institutions and universities. From the secularists’ and liberals’ point-of-view, lifting the ban is an insidious move to pave the way for more rights for the religious, and to marginalise the secular sections. Those who accuse Erdoğan of harbouring a secret agenda to turn Turkey into a religious society now hold up this move as a first, incremental step towards reaching this end.

In fact, it is the rising, entrepreneurial class from the socially conservative Turkish heartland of Anatolia, rather than hardcore Islamists, that makes up AKP’s following. Over the past few decades Anatolians have migrated to cities, gradually entering universities, public sector positions, politics and the business sector.

Despite conspiratorial theories of hidden agendas, the AKP, though morally conservative, is in favour of the opening up of moribund Turkish society. It favours market reforms and accession to the EU. In this sense, it shares the priorities of those liberals who emphasise the need for Turkey to comply with international standards in its social reforms.

Some liberals say that the government’s keenness to protect educational freedom for religious women while failing to reform other laws and policies restricting social and political freedoms, such as the infamous Article 301 which criminalises ‘insulting Turkishness’, betrays its lack of concern for democratisation.

There is certainly an element of skewed priorities here, but the headscarf row is something of a phoney war, with tokenism displayed on all sides. Not only was the lifting of the ban a compromise deal, but the headscarf has become a ready-at-hand symbol for all sides; a symbol for struggles between new and old and for divisions between the West and Islam. While the issue has been discussed in the Turkish media as a case of progress v backwardness and secularism v religiosity, this obscures the deeper divisions and complex political allegiances that exist in Turkey today.

The headscarf itself is not the issue here and while the ban was a draconian measure to begin with (helping to politicise the headscarf), Turkish elites would do better to acknowledge that when it comes to the future of their country, there are more important discussions to be had than whether or not female students should be allowed to cover their heads.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume thought it was time to ‘talk turkey’ about Turkey – and the EU. Chris Bickerton said both the army and the EU were seeking to override the democratic process in Turkey. Nathalie Rothschild saw Turkey’s ban on smoking in public places as an attempt to fit in to the EU. Brendan O’Neill discussed the imprisonment of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and investigated the rumours of a Turkish Islamic revolution. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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