What the Headscarf Ban Means

What the Headscarf Ban Means

by Merve Kavakci, Ph.D.
Member of Parliament-Turkey (1999)
Currently-Professor of International Affairs
George Washington University

In a column published in the Washington Post on April 1, 2008 (“What a Headscarf Can Mean”) Anne Applebaum makes a common mistake of Westerners. She passes judgment on a matter pertaining to other people, in this case Muslims of Turkey, without in–depth knowledge of the issue at hand.

Her op-ed seems to be a product of a mere cursory reading of Turkish politics. The fallacies in her article are numerous, beginning with the flawed framing of the discussion. Ms. Applebaum thinks that the headscarf debate in Turkey is about secular Islam and the resistance to it. Not a bit. It is about secular fundamentalism and the attempt to dismantle it. Turkish secularism is unique in the sense that it is far from what we understand from “secularism” in US or in much of Europe. It makes a taboo of religion. The state, the introducer of this type of secularism, wields it to control, shape and marginalize Turks’ religion i.e. Islam.

The current headscarf ban which gets much attention in US media is the most conspicuous manifestation of Turkish secularism. What the current government strived to do, recently, was to lift this ban for university students alone. Although passed in the parliament, it was not implemented. As soon as the government introduced the Constitutional amendments to grant the right to education to women with headscarves, members of the academia protested publicly enunciating: “We will not accept these girls in. If they somehow do come in, we will not give them the grades they deserve!” We cannot explain such a stance as the position of moderate secularism. This is typical of the secular fundamentalism that reigns among Turkish elite. “Rights—but not for all” and “democracy—only for us and people like us” are their mottos.

Women such as I, who wear a headscarf and pay a personal price for it (I was elected to the Turkish Parliament but was denied from oath of office by a group of parliamentarians in 1999), criticized the government’s efforts to the “partial” lifting of the ban, we are saddened that even that did not become a reality. Partial “rights” is a far-fetched dream today for us, let alone full-fledged rights….

Now, the Constitutional Court has opened a case to close down the governing party, to ban some of its members including the party leader PM Erdogan and President Gul. Ms. Applebaum correctly identifies the headscarf debate as central to the closure process. However, she fails to see the bigger picture and the two major impetuses behind the closure attempt. The headscarf is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is visible and germane to women which both make it appealing for “exploiters” for misrepresentation in the media. More importantly, however, it is emblematic of the larger discussion on civil liberties within the context of Turkish democratization. The government, committed to making strides towards EU accession process, has introduced various measures necessary to eliminate social disparities among Turkish people. The ban on the headscarf is among the contributors feeding into social and economic disparities.

TESEV studies depict that 69 % of Turkish women wear headscarves. This is part of Turks’ culture, history and most importantly their religion. Parents in the Eastern part of the country protest when they are castigated by state officials for not sending their daughters to schools: “Our children are not permitted in with their scarves!” Less education means less economic freedom and less opportunity for professional activism. At the end, they all translate into less economic, social and political contributions to the Turkish society. The ban ostracizes a sizable part of Turkish women. Thus the government wanted to revoke it. Ms. Applebaum does not seem to see that. She is quick to label the headscarves in Turkey as “political.”

She further suggests that headscarf in Turkey gives away what the “wearer’s view of women” is. What does that mean? I am a woman with a headscarf and I only have a view of who I am and how I should live my life, not of other women or how they should live their life. Ms. Applebaum must be confusing women with headscarves with secular fundamentalists who claim to know not only things about themselves but also about others–such as women with headscarves—and their views on issues and people.

Ms. Applebaum predicates her argument on what she heard about the wives of the members of the ruling party in government. She heard that most of them wore headscarves after marriage and “never worked or studied after that.” That is false. Most of those women, whom I know personally, including First Lady Gul and wife of the PM Mrs. Erdogan actually were already wearing headscarves when they met their husbands and continue to wear it afterwards. Moreover, First Lady Gul, after having three kids attempted to go back to school, entered the central university examination, passed it successfully and yet was prevented from admission in 1995. Her case became publicized since her husband Mr. Gul at the time was a junior parliamentarian from the Welfare Party. Mr. Gul’s public denouncement of the prevention of his wife from the admission process became a factor in the closure of Welfare Party then. Ms. Applebaum does not seem to remember that either.

But most importantly, she does not mention the real reason behind the current government being under fire by secular fundamentalists i.e. its fight against the deep state – derin devlet. PM Erdogan has recently given the start of cracking down of the shadow state, an illegal structure in the form of a paramilitary state mafia working against political and economic stability in Turkey. Among the recent activities of the deep state are killing of Hrant Dink the Armenian journalist, the murder of Priest Santorum in Trabzon and bombings/explosions at various times throughout the country. Among the so far indicted members are former military men, members of academia, journalists and businessmen. As soon as the crack down became a reality, the closure case knocked at the government’s door. Interestingly those who want, in Ms. Applebaum’s term, secular Islam, in Turkey are also the ones who bash the government for this crack down. I wonder if Ms. Applebaum has something to say about that? What is it? Is it secular Islam that they want or is it a Turkey that does not dismantle illegal threats to Turkey’s democratization and development?

Finally, Ms. Applebaum gives us a heads up about a possible headscarf debate ending up at our “shores” here in US. I disagree. A debate on headscarf cannot take place in US, unless it were no longer the America that we all migrated to for the sake of the liberty it offers.

Minaret of Freedom Institute Guest blog






2 responses to “What the Headscarf Ban Means”

  1. sideboom Avatar

    im happy to have discovered minaret of freedom web site, it is with pleasure that i may become a contributor associate member, my cryteriour remains admemant , i have received shahada with grace from allah, my goals are formost in advancing islam, i was born in upstate new york on a farm, but have spent 16 years overseas as a pipeline technicion on transmission lines in europe and the middle east,my favorite country is algeria, i wish to be buried there , im not young , but very experienced

  2. sideboom Avatar

    the hyjab must be retained by all muslims forever, regardless of infedal oppinions, I wear a nomad head cover most of the time ,indicating muslim complience to the koran, but not for being significant in society, my beleif is from experience in the sahara as well as palestinbe .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow by Email