Agencies | 03 October 2013
Turkey on Monday announced it would lift a ban on women wearing headscarves in most public offices, following other measures critics say are aimed at Islamising the staunchly secular country.
In a major speech to introduce political reforms, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that, with a few exceptions, civil servants would be allowed to wear headscarves after a long-standing ban is overturned.
However, the ban will remain in effect for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel, he added.
The lifting of the ban was part of major political reforms announced by Erdogan in order to enhance the rights of minority groups including Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
The headscarf controversy reveals the rivalry in Turkey between religious Muslims, who form the bulk of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), and secular opponents.
Secularists — particularly those in the army — see the headscarf as a symbol of defiance against the strict separation of state and religion, a basic tenet of modern Turkey.
Erdogan’s government was hit by a wave of nationwide unrest in June that threw up the biggest challenge to his decade-plus rule. Protesters called Erdogan a “dictator”, accusing him of Islamising the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country.
Critics say that Erdogan’s rule has left Turkish society more polarised than ever, with opponents of the AKP government openly voicing concerns that Turkey is sliding toward conservative Islam.
In 2004, his party attempted to submit an amendment on banning adultery but had to back down amid criticism from opposition parties and women’s groups.
Last year, Erdogan provoked outrage when he likened abortion to murder.
Secularists were also alarmed when parliament in 2012 approved his education reform that allowed for religious schools to raise what he described as “a pious generation.”
More recently, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, the toughest such measures in the republic’s history.
This month, an Istanbul court again handed a 10-month suspended jail term to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say during a retrial over social media posts deemed religiously offensive.
Professor Ilter Turan of the Istanbul-based Bilgi University said that the lifting of the ban on the headscarf was not unusual.
“The ban has gradually been melting down throughout the AKP’s rule,” he told AFP. “To a great extent, it has not been applied in some government offices and AKP-led municipalities.”
In a blog post earlier this year, Today’s Zaman journalist Sevgi Akarcesme argued that Turkey had gone a long way in its journey to democracy. However, without providing full freedom regarding the headscarf, she said it would clearly remain short of its goal of turning into a real democracy.
The 1990s, she recounted, were probably the nightmare years for headscarved women. Not only they were strictly prevented from entering classrooms and deprived of their right to education, but also an elected deputy in Parliament, Merve Kavakçı, was forced to leave the Parliament simply because she was wearing a headscarf.
The repressive Kemalists were appalled by the idea that a politician with a headscarved wife would run for the presidency in 2007. The reaction to the headscarf even led to the latest anti-democratic intervention of the military to democracy the same year. Ironically, while all these happened, Turkey had had the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in power for five years.
The de facto restrictions on the headscarf did not end even when Abdullah Gül was elected president. For years, generals refused to attend receptions at the presidential palace to protest the presence of his headscarved wife, Hayrünnisa Gül. These relations begin to normalize only in the last couple of years with the decreasing autonomy of the military.
“Although Turkey has been governed for over a decade now by the AK Party, which is still labeled as moderately Islamist, it has not been able to provide complete freedom regarding the headscarf. In practice, students with headscarf can now go to most of the universities. However, women with headscarves are discriminated against in many jobs. They cannot even imagine working for the government sector. Even in the private sector, there is tacit discrimination. Only certain companies with “Islamic sensitivities” hire them. Just recently, ING Bank Turkey refused to interview a young woman for a job just because she was wearing a headscarf. To be honest, I was surprised by her courage, as many covered women would not even consider applying to non-Islamic banks of Turkey in the first place.
In another current example of discrimination, an Ankara judge postponed a trial due to the presence of a headscarved lawyer. No matter how clear the discrimination is by modern standards, some argue that by wearing a headscarf a woman displays a certain worldview which would prevent her from being impartial. According to that logic, someone without a headscarf could equally be said to represent a specific worldview and be impartial.”
The headscarf reform is considered as a gesture by Erdogan to his grassroots in the run-up to elections. His party has relaxed the ban at universities.
The country votes in local elections in March, a presidential election in August and parliamentary polls in 2015.
Listen to an in depth discussion on the headscarf unbanning HERE
Tags: headscarf, Hijab, ihh, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, turkey