January 24, 2013 By Ibnu latheef

Lifting the Ban on Headscarf: A Paradigm Shift

headTurkish Prime Minister recently announced a package of proposals that include lifting the ban on wearing of Islamic headscarves- a ban that barred women from wearing the Islamic-style headscarf in state institutions, part of the government’s long-awaited package of proposed human-rights reforms.

Muslim Turkey, mostly following secular conventions in most walks of life, to the extent of banning visible symbols of religion in government institutions, has long had tough restrictions on the garb worn by women working in state offices. It was in 1978, when the government issued a circular on the dress code for governmental employees, that the first prohibition of wearing headscarves was formalized. The headscarf ban in early 1980s was a consequence of the idea of controlling universities and creating uniform citizenry. In 1982, the Council of Higher Education (CHE) which was founded by the military rule issued a general ban on wearing headscarves.

After the national elections of 1995, the Islamist Welfare Party (WP) led by Najmuddhin Erbakan became a primal partner in a coalition government. The military considered Erbakan’s premiership and the increasing public visibility of Islam as a threat. Then the President Siileyman Demirel, the judiciary, Kemalist NGOs, media and business associations—referred to as the Kemalist establishment—came forward to support the military on imposing measures on the government in an effort to protect the ‘secular’ characteristic of the Republic; eventually  the coalition government was pushed out of power (Cizre and Cmar, 2003:310). This joint venture led to the February 28 process, during which the military and its civilian collaborators implemented several policies for the eradication of publicly visible signs of Islam and the revitalization of the Kemalist understanding in state institutions and the public life of Turkey. Wearing headscarves was strictly banned for all university students and public employees, including students and teachers at Imam-Hatip schools. In the initial phase of the ban, widespread protests took place in different cities of Turkey. However, the protests did not have any impact on the Kemalists’ dedication to impose the ban.

Following of the presidential election of Abdullah Gul of the JDP in 2007, the Kemalists began to lose their dominance in Turkish politics. President Gul and the JDP government appointed non-Kemalist members to the Council of Higher Education, which had been the institution behind the strict measures taken against women wearing headscarves. Towards the end of 2010, the CHE issued a circular to ask university professors not to expel students wearing headscarves from the classrooms and to only record cases to initiate disciplinary procedures. Until this circular, students were prevented from entering university campuses by security personnel or forced out of classrooms by professors. The circular led several universities to allow students wearing headscarves to attend classes in practice and the situation returned to its status as it was before the 1997 military intervention. However, in 2011 the headscarf ban was still in force in a few universities with a strong Kemalist presence and also in public offices.
The Kemalist discourse of headscarves, which evolved through interactions with, and has been shaped by Western understandings of veiling, has dominated Turkish state institutions. This discourse, positioning itself within an overall reassessment of the very concept of ‘modernity’, defined women wearing headscarves as “abnormal” (reactionary, uneducated, and/or oppressed by men). The Kemalist discourse of headscarves, coupled with state power, ended up creating women wearing headscarves who are uneducated, as it imagined them to be. In other words, Kemalism predicted that women wearing headscarves would be uneducated and then fulfilled this by various means, such as barring them from education.
The Kemalist  version  of modernity and headscarves have been instrumental in shaping Turkey’s public institutions and public culture, but women who found themselves in these structured frameworks were not entirely driven by such directives.  Instead, these women have produced new discourses about their personalized understandings of Islam and also from the angle of rights appropriation. Many women wearing headscarves have tried to find ways around the headscarf ban (such as wearing hats, berets, or wigs), instead of taking off their headscarves for good or quitting their education. On the one hand, these women have developed several thought streams that challenge the Kemalist headscarf ban, debates in which their resistance is visible.

Indeed, with this path breaking decision of lifting ban on headscarves, Erdogan has definitely made a paradigm shift in Turkey’s public sphere. Turkey will be no more living in Kemalist fakeries of secularism. From Erdogan’s own words, “This is a historic moment, an important stage”


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