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Headscarf Debate Divides the Nation

The discussion on the Muslim headscarf is becoming increasingly tainted by ideology, and not only in Germany and France. In Turkey, too, the controversy increasingly threatens to divide public opinion.


In Turkey, there's an ongoing debate over the headscarf.

It’s an everyday sight in Istanbul: Fashionably coiffeured women sitting in the bus alongside others wearing the Muslim headscarf. In big shopping centers, women with their heads covered stand at the sales tables next to others with their hair worn free.

Yet this peaceful coexistence is deceptive. In Turkey, no other topic gets people so worked up as the Muslim headscarf. For some, it’s a symbol of religious fanaticism and the oppression of women that ultimately has to be banished from public life. Others are convinced that the veiling of women is commanded by the Koran, and they argue that a ban would infringe their right to practice their religion freely – something that is anchored in the country’s democratic constitution.

So far, the state of affairs in Turkey may sound very similar to the situation in Germany or France; and indeed, in all these countries, the same kind of arguments are marshalled by both sides. In Turkey, too, the debate is being conducted with increasingly passionate intensity through the various channels of the mass media. But there is one significant difference: in contrast to the Western European countries, Turkey is populated mainly by Muslims.

Religion and politics are separated by law

This doesn’t mean, however, that Turkey is "an Islamic country," for since the foundation of modern Turkey 80 years ago, the country has defined itself as a "secular state," in which religion and politics are to be strictly separated by law.

Turkish girls are already forbidden to wear headscarves to school, from the first day of primary-level education onwards. Nonetheless, this is a topic that has been the source of heated controversy in Turkey for decades – and in the current battle, the schools and universities form the front line.

"Having lost Islam for a time, humankind has found it again. We all grew up in the 80s and 90s – and we are now witnessing the collapse of Western civilization! The revival of religion moves on from strength to strength!" These are the rallying cries of young, veiled, women at the University of Istanbul -- women who make no secret of their Islamist worldview.

For most of these educated, metropolitan students, Islam has become an ideology that allows them to interpret the present while pointing the way towards the future. The headscarf has long since become the symbol for an "Islamic ideology" that refuses to see religious faith as something to be "caged in" in the private sphere; instead, it wants to see this faith "lived out" in every area of public and private life.

In her recent commentary on the French plan to ban the headscarf, the well-known Islamist lawyer Sibel Eraslan described the Muslim headscarf as a symbol of "an alternative, divine set of coordinates, diametrically opposed to the basic principles of Western modernity."

Headscarves returned to fashion in the 60s

It’s true that the revival of the veil has been accompanied by a strengthening of the role played by Islam in modern Turkish society. In the 30s and 40s, headscarves disappeared from the Turkish cities, only to reappear in greater numbers in the course of the 60s.

Until then, there had been a one-party system in Turkey. The strictly secular Republican People’s Party had paid close attention to upholding the clothing reforms introduced by Kemal Atatürk. Men were forbidden to wear the turban, the fez or the kaftan, while women were banned from wearing the charshaf, the black "sheet" that conceals the entire body with the exception of the eyes or the face. Women are, and were, permitted to wear a headscarf at home or on the street – but not in the state-controlled areas: in schools, universities, hospitals, and government offices, no kind of veil or headscarf is permitted.

Many contemporary Turkish women see the headscarf as the symbol of a counter-revolution that wants to rob them of everything they have won. But is this really the goal of the "headscarf movement?" If so, it must be celebrating the progress made today, when headscarves and "modest" ankle-length dresses are worn by the wives of almost every senior politician in the Turkish government.

A difficult choice

Most of the "veiled" young women in the Turkish cities are also the children of Atatürk’s modernized Turkey. And they don’t want to be oppressed by men. In the case of these young women, the headscarf ban has precisely the opposite effect intended.

After studying medicine for four years, Nilüfer Pehlivan was forced to abandon her dream of becoming a doctor, for she was not permitted to take up a medical residency. She describes the crucial meeting with her professor: "He compared it with a set of scales. He told me to imagine the headscarf on one side and my course of studies on the other -- and he asked me which weighed more heavily in the balance. I felt as if someone were playing a horrible game with me, forcing me to choose between my faith and my studies." No compromise was possible: Nilüfer left the room – and, eventually, she left the university, too.

Indeed, in Turkey, as elsewhere, the controversy seems bound to grow ever more acrimonious. The Muslim headscarf is a political issue par excellence.

Dilek Zaptcioglu, © Qantara.de 2003
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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