Ending the headscarf ban in Turkey

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 

As many of you know, a recent directive issued by the director of upper education in Turkey has prohibited professors from throwing students out of their classes on the bases of the student's attire or headgear. With one directive, it seems like the Turkish government has finally cleared the way towards finding an end to the headscarf-in-university controversy that has transfixed some political figures in Turkey for the better part of the last fifteen years or so.

When I started living in Turkey in the early 1990s, individual universities made their own choices regarding the permissibility regarding women wearing headscarves to class. At the university where I worked, Marmara University, women could wear headscarves but some men were told to shave their beards if they got too long and scraggly. The anti-beard rules, apparently, had originally been enforced in opposition to what had been perceived, in earlier years, as a symbol of Marxism. Now it was a symbol of Islam.

Later on, of course, the headscarf would be banned altogether from Turkish universities, just like it was already banned for students (and teachers) at Turkish public schools and in public offices. From this point forward, overturning the headscarf ban emerged as the the front-line "culture war" issue among a populace increasingly divided in Turkey between self-styled "secularists" and supporters of lifting the ban (often called 'Islamists," but really a misleading term). When the AKP successfully passed a constitutional amendment enabling women to wear headscarves to university, the law was overturned by the Constitutional Court and the AKP almost found itself shut down as a result. Anyone wondering why the AKP placed so much emphasis upon gaining a few more sympathetic judges in Turkey's recent referendum needs to start here (look here for my recent discussion of the referendum and what it means).

Fighting for their right to cover up: women protesting headscarf ban in Turkey

So now apparently all of this struggle was unnecessary--of course, if a challenge to this most recent move of allowing headscarves by fiat does arrive at the (now expanded) Constitutional Court, the AKP has less to worry about than was the case prior to the referendum.

So let's assume--even though it's a big assumption, in my opinion--that the current situation stands for a little while. Headscarves in Turkish universities. What about the response?

The take on the end of the ban among foreign observers writing on Turkey tends to be generally positive. Indeed, the only folks outside of Turkey who seem to be very suspicious about the AKP tend to be neo-con types who are suspicious of everything they consider "Islamic," including the AKP. As for the individuals whose familiarity with the region goes beyond knee-jerk reactions to Islamic caricatures, the end of the ban has been celebrated.

I think one reason for this attitude is that liberal Americans tend to view the headscarf issue in terms similar to our own civil rights struggles. The intellectual paucity of the arguments made by so many of the so-called "secularists" in Turkey, meanwhile, is enough to turn almost anyone away from their cause. As a young person living in Turkey prior to graduate school, I was often dismayed by the arrogance and sense of cultural superiority that many "secularists" exhibited when discussing people who, in many cases, simply wanted to be included in the public sphere without surrendering their religious piety.

But at the same time, I think it's important to remember the larger struggle that's taking place in Turkey now. It's not a battle between "Islamists" and "secularists," it's a struggle over the place of Islamic piety in the public sphere. The AKP is not simply trying to remove a barrier preventing some people from participating in the public sphere, this party is also concerned with increasing the public profile of religion more generally in Turkey.
It wasn't too long ago that local AKP officials were trying to construct an enormous mosque on Taksim Square, and over the past several years the "secular" theaters and other venues (such as the Ataturk Cultural Center) have been systematically removed from the Taksim area and dispersed across Istanbul. Secularized space in Turkey--whether we're talking about an entertainment district like Taksim or more residential areas in the city and country--is increasingly under assault, while even the initiatives made by the AKP towards non-Muslims, like the recent mass held in the Armenian Church on Akdamar Island, tend to be likewise undertaken in a religious context.

The AKP is not simply a pro-business party that happens to support free choices when it comes to headscarves. While neo-con fears of the AKP being an "Islamist" party are ridiculous, it is nevertheless the case that the AKP is dedicated to increasing the place of religion in the public sphere in Turkey at the expense of secularized space. While it is true that these moves constitute a "payback" of sorts for decades of Kemalist-oriented policies which systematically removed religion (especially Islam) from the public sphere, I can't say that I feel terribly enthusiastic about equally determined efforts by a government to reduce secular space and replace it with publicly-aired religious symbols.

After all, in the United States I've had to withstand efforts by (some) Republicans for most of my life to raise the profile of religion in public. Whether it's an issue like prayer in school, public nativity scenes, or the idiotic "Merry Christmas" debate from a few years ago, I don't feel comfortable with creeping public religiosity in my own country so why should I celebrate it in Turkey?

And so, while I can't argue against the wisdom of allowing people to wear headscarves in universities if they want to, I don't see this latest development so much as a breakthrough as a salvo. The AKP didn't invent the political divisions occurring in Turkey over issues like headscarves, but this party certainly hasn't backed away from exploiting these divisions, either. I would be feeling a lot better about things if I had the sense that lifting the ban was a move towards de-politicizing the issue of headscarves, rather than simply a big step towards claiming the country's universities as one more place in Turkey where religiosity can stake a strong claim to the public sphere. One doesn't have to be part of the so-called "secular elite" (the one minority in Turkey that almost every western expert seems to despise) in order to oppose these developments.

The biggest reason to be happy about the ban being lifted is that the ban itself was divisive and was much too much an area of focus (or controversy) with respect to an issue that is much more complicated: what is an acceptable level of religiosity in public space?

Back when I was teaching in Turkey before the universal ban, I had both "covered" (to translate from the Turkish) and "uncovered" women in my classes and I don't remember it being a particularly problematic issue. Indeed, the adoption, at the beginning of this decade, of a universal ban of the headscarf in Turkish universities was the main factor in transforming this issue into both a domestic and international cause celebre in the first place. More than anything, the ban has just served to galvanize support for parties like the AKP over the past ten years. And maybe now that the ban is gone some of the more lazy caricatures that international observers have of AKP opponents (i.e. that they all come from the "secular elite," whatever that means) will go away, too.

Looking ahead, I wonder if we can expect imminent revivals of this issue on new fronts--the Parliament, for example. The bureaucracy? High schools?

As is the case with most so-called "culture battles," I think the best thing would be for people in Turkey to get past this brain-dead (and ultimately pro-AKP) issue and instead focus their energy upon solving their country's myriad social and economic problems (something that ever-distracted Americans need to do as well). We'll see if they're given the opportunity.

I have the sense that--left to their own devices--Turkish people will manage to get along with each other. In the meantime, I will take my own advice and focus upon my own myriad social and economic problems, or at least get back to work.  
More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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