Turkish tempers flare as headscarf reform nears
Anyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.
Readers abroad might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country with a vibrant democracy. But the headscarf goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. For a feature on the headscarf issue, I spoke to devout and secular women and heard two diametrically opposed views. The devout women, some of whom had been expelled from universities because of the headscarf, said covering their hair was all about personal and religious freedoms. “I wear the headscarf, my cousin doesn’t and we go out to family dinners. It is no big deal,” one said. Many secular women feel their rights will be curtailed if the ban is lifted since — they fear — they will eventually be forced to wear the Islamic headscarf.
Male opinion can be just as split. Secular men say that easing the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities would weaken the current separation of state and religion. The pious Muslims — including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan — say wearing the headscarf is a personal freedom and a right, just like secular women have the right not to wear it.
The two sides are no closer than they were in the 1980s when restrictions were tightened. The army is still against the headscarf. But many Turks do feel the headscarf should be permitted for university students. Thousands of students have decided not to attend university because of the ban or have defied the ban and been expelled. Many others have gone to study abroad.
But Turkey is a constantly evolving country. The once-mighty secularist elite, which includes the armed forces, no longer dominates the media and public life. Headscarves have become more common even in the big cities, where young women sport a wide variety of fashionable colours and patterns and match them with their other clothing. In shopping malls or at Starbucks, women with and without headscarves mix easily — they don’t seem to see any problem. So the more vocal, observant Muslim middle class that helped to clinch a second four-year term for the ruling religiously oriented AK Party last July now wants to see a change in the law.
Who’s right? No one really knows. In the meantime , though, each side is accusing the other of stirring tensions and hatred. It makes for a constant buzz whenever Turks get together. Today, some workers came around to my flat to fix the cable TV connection and our short chat quickly turned to politics. Like everyone else in this debate, they let me know loud and clear where they stood. They were convinced Turkey would soon become an Islamic republic if the ban was lifted.