Headscarves In, Troops Out!

Thursday 28 February 2008, by Ceyda Turan

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Two weeks ago, the Turkish parliament passed two constitutional amendments to lift the ban on headscarves in universities. The self-appointed heralds of freedom, i.e. the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the latest incarnation of the banned Islamist movement and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) or the ultranationalists presented the move as a step towards increasing freedom of faith. Were they really motivated by such noble intentions?

The amended constitution says that no one can be deprived of his or her right to higher education for reasons not clearly laid down by law and everyone is entitled to equal treatment in public services. Since there is no actual law banning the headscarves, the amendments are supposed to pave the way to free headscarves in universities. However the current constitutional amendments do not seem sufficient to lift the ban. University managements claim that the Article 17 of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) law on dress codes has to be modified to permit the practice to change.

Contrary to popular belief, the headscarf ban is a latecomer to Turkey’s political scene and was never banned by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, nor the Constitution. The Council of Higher Education, established by the military junta, introduced it for the first time in 1982 on the grounds that it threatened secularism. At that epoch the Iranian style headscarf referred to as türban, started to be adapted in Turkey side by side the traditional way Turkish gradmas’ covered their heads, i.e., başörtüsü-a headscarf which partially covers the head and is tied under the chin. The secularist establishment sees the türban as an imported symbol of Islamic counter-revolution against the secular republic due to its usage by dissident Iranian women against the Shah and its endorsement by Mullah Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime later on. Hence sections of the secularist establishment regard it as a first step to usher a strict form of Islam.

The headscarf ban was lifted in 1984 to be forbidden again as a “disciplinary offence” in 1987 by the Council of Higher Education. The civilian government that took over from the military regime attempted to lift the ban twice in 1988 and 1990 only to have it rejected each time by the Constitutional Court. The Council of Higher Education said the last word by issuing a notice that forbade headscarves in universities in 1997.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is determined to take the amendments to the Constitutional Court, a pro-secular institution established to check and balance legislation. The court is likely to overrule the parliamentary amendments perceiving them as an indirect attempt to change the secular character of the regime “whose amendment can not even be proposed” according to the constitution.

The Turkish Armed Forces’ silence during the headscarf turmoil- who is usually very vocal on secularism issues- puzzled many. The military’s incursion into Northern Iraq to fight the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) came right before President Abdullah Gül’s approval of the constitutional amendments regarding the headscarf. The timing of the two events raised questions as to whether the AKP had some stout negotiation with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to barter Kurdish rights with headscarf liberty.


Whether the amendments are part of a hidden-Islamist agenda or not, there are a number of reasons to suspect a lack of integrity in the AKP’s understanding of rights and liberties. During the parliamentary debates on headscarf freedom the party reached a consensus with the MHP on changing the Article 17 of Higher Education Law to allow only headscarves tied under the chin, the traditional headscarf, into universities denying entry to women covered in any other way.

Although the changes have not yet taken place in accordance to this understanding of freedom, some women would be less equal and free than others based on the way they tied their headscarves. Moreover, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s guarantees that the measure will be limited to universities makes one wonder how the grievances of the same students will be addressed where upon graduation, they will be denied from taking public office where the ban is still in effect.

Those who are not convinced by the government’s claim to extend freedom of faith have underlined its lack of response to the grievances of the Alevis-Turkey’s largest heterodox Muslim community. The Alevis have been demanding exemption from the compulsory religion courses of Sunni Islam for over two decades and they have been asserting their right for recognition by the state ever since the establishment of the republic. Turkish columnist Yıldırım Türker wonders, “If you are on the verge of freeing a symbol of faith, how can you be indifferent to the rights and freedoms of different believers?”


While the AKP is chanting the headscarf song, the residents of the southeastern village of Tekeli voice their contempt for the continuous noise of artillery that scares their children. This leads many people who would like to see the headscarf ban lifted doubt AKP’s commitment to rights and liberties. They regard the party’s prioritization of the headscarf issue over and above all other violated rights and liberties, notably that of the Kurds, as a confirmation of its insincerity. “It seems like AKP sees lifting the ban on headscarves, a blatantly anti-democratic rule, as more urgent and vital than putting an end to the numerous social grievances and violations of rights and freedoms” wrote Ahmet İnsel, Galatasaray University’s well-known political science professor.

The right to life, for example, especially that of Kurds, is less dear to Mr. Erdoğan’s heart than the right to wear a headscarf. He asserted, “whatever is necessary will be done against those who have become a tool of terror even if they are women or children.” Correspondingly, a police panzer crushed 15 year-old Yahya Menekşe to death at a protest in the southeastern town of Cizre. The perpetrators have yet to be identified. Yahya is not the only child who has lost his life at meetings and demonstrations during AKP’s reign.

The Turkish military’s invasion into Northern Iraq hardly two weeks after the headscarf turmoil left no doubt that AKP’s step towards democratization went only as far as the headscarf law. The insistence on a military war against the PKK without any comprehensive political, economic, cultural initiative to address the grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens demonstrates that the party sees the Kurdish issue primarily as one of terror and not one of rights and liberties. Mr. Erdoğan’s infamous quote summarizes the AKP’s real stance on rights and freedoms only too well: “Democracy is a train that you get off when you have reached your desired station”.

The AKP’s lack of integrity is exemplified in its double standards against the Kurds in Northern Iraq and the Albanians in Kosovo. While the AKP recognized the independence of Kosovo immediately on the grounds of respect for the rights of oppressed nations, it has given numerous warning to the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq that it will not tolerate Kurdish independence.


According to many, AKP is hiding from Turkey’s social and economic problems behind the veil. Erdoğan has publicly scolded anybody who raises issues concerning socio-economic rights, such as the ban on strikes upheld by his government. At party rallies he has told the poor to pull themselves together and do something instead of expecting everything from the government at a time when they face increasing hunger, unprecedented rates of unemployment, severe inequality and housing problems.

To some, the convenient timing of the headscarf campaign before the local elections makes it look as if the AKP is using the same tactic it used before the 2007 presidential elections. It will capitalize on the Constitutional Court’s decision and portray itself as a herald of freedoms victimized by the Kemalist establishment to win the elections.

The Constitutional Court’s decision and the AKP’s reaction to it will in the short term determine the fate of the head-scarf women and reveal the AKP’s real motivations. If the Constitutional Court repeals the amendments, the AKP will have two choices: it can present itself as the victim of the secular oligarchy and capitalize on the court’s decision. This will increase its popularity in the elections but the headscarf issue will remain unresolved. Alternatively, if the Constitutional Court repeals the amendments the party can opt to rewrite the civil constitution in order to bringing a comprehensive expansion of all rights and liberties, in which case it will have made a real U-turn, truly committing to rights and liberties.

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