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14:38, 27 May 2018 Sunday
Update: 10:20, 25 October 2010 Monday

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Turkey's controversial headscarf problem
Turkey's controversial headscarf problem

Turkey's one of the most controversial issues, headscarf problem, is becoming a current issue.


By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin

Turkey is witnessing to important developments after the referendum process. On the one hand, some members of HSYK are changing, on the other hand Turkey’s one of the most controversial issues, headscarf problem, is becoming a current issue. After the Higher Education Board (YÖK) sent to Istanbul University warning academicians that they should not oblige students who dress headscarf to leave class, we began to debate Turkey’s years-long headscarf problem once again.


Through years, while some people talked about this issue in conferences or with politicians, others prefer to protest in every weekend in different cities of Turkey such as Kocaeli, Sakarya, Van, and Konya. They insisted on continuing to their protest because they believe that this right is not given by authorities; this right should be taken by civil resistance. According to the New York Times, In Turkey, putting on an Islamic head scarf can be an act of rebellion. So, this shows the problematic picture in headscarf issue.


Then, firstly, we should look at its historical background in order to understand the roots of this debate. But, before looking at historical background, I want to focus on Seyfeddin Kara’s study for IHRC (Islamic Human Rights Commission). He evaluates headscarf problem as a file here. And in his study, he categorizes social fields and problems with which headscarved women face. I think his categorization is very clear and I am quoting here:



Guarantee of Basic Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: Article 3


The IHRC notes that by the current ban on the headscarf, Turkey is failing to guarantee basic human rights and fundamental freedoms that are stated within ICCPR article 18 and the Declaration of Beijing article 12. They have also failed to comply with CEDAW’s 32nd Session request to the Turkish government.




Political and Public Life: Article 7


The IHRC notes that there are serious obstacles for women in Turkey who wish to partake in political and public life. Therefore the IHRC has come to the conclusion that the attitude of local and national political authorities and parties speaking against headscarved women in Turkey is explicit and extremely worrying.




Education: Article 10


The IHRC has noted that there is strenuous discrimination against practicing Muslim women in Turkey in the field of education. Arbitrary interpretations of secularism have left a great portion of women deprived of their basic right to education in high schools as well as higher education since 1997. University students with headscarves were denied entrance into campuses and mistreated and occasionally were assaulted by police and soldiers.



Employment: Article 11


The IHRC notes that between 1998-2000 around 3500 women were dismissed from their civil service positions and thousands of them had to resign. Since 2000, women have not been allowed to enter a central examination process for recruiting civil servants, so there is no way they can get employment within the government.



Health: Article 12


Turkey has a notorious record of bad treatment against headscarved women in the health system. The IHRC has noted that due to this policy, people were denied their basic right 6 to receive adequate health care and there have been a number of shocking incidents that have reportedly led to deaths.



Economic and Social Life: Article 13


The IHRC notes that the headscarf ban has expanded to almost all sectors of economic and social life with many women prevented from enjoying their rights in these sectors.




Historical Background of a Headscarf Problem




After the Turkish Republic was established, western values have become very important in the society. And religious norms had been evaluated anti-modern and it was an important threat to modernization process-concepts of liberalism and individualism. During this process of transformation, the governing elites of the Republic who kept Turkey under a single-party regime until 1945 resorted to authoritarian measures to implement the reforms.



On the other hand, new state was trying to improve the role of women. In this regard, there were significant improvements. In 1926, the new civic code granted equal rights to women and this led to the right to vote for Turkish women in 1934.



But there was a dilemma because although they were emphasizing for all the women, their preference was on a ‘modern woman’. There was no any legal ban on headscarf; but it was operated indirectly. On the other hand, there were interesting practices about dressing. The first encounter with the dress issue took place in 1925. With the demand of the official founder of ‘modern’ Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the National Assembly enacted a statute which made it mandatory for every Turkish man to wear a hat. Within the same year the National Assembly enacted another statute by which only clergymen were allowed to wear religious clothing thus all types of religious clothing were banned from the common people. But we are repeating again: there was no any restriction on the headscarf and the Turkish constitution has never contained an article that opposed the headscarf.



So, as Seyfeddin Kara said, until 1980 Turkish women had not faced any difficulty in terms of wearing the headscarf. However, after the 1980 military coup, the civil constitution was replaced with a military constitution in 1982. According to IHRC report, “while this new constitution brought severe restrictions on civil and political liberties, its main focus was on universities. A Higher Education Board (YOK) was established to control universities and campuses. Members of this council were appointed by the president and the military. The aim of the council was to create students who are ‘loyal to Ataturkist nationalism and Ataturk’s reform and principles.’”




The YOK council targeted all different groups that were considered to step out of line, regardless of their world view, and enforced harsh penalties on those who refused to comply with its official ideology. The penalties measured from disciplinary actions to curtailment of academic career, expulsion and even closing of a university for contradicting with the ideas of the YOK (Human Rights Watch Report, 2004).




The First Victim




Dr. Nebahat Koru, a wife of the Yeni Safak Newspaper columnist Fehmi Koru, was the first sufferer from these practices. As IHRC Report emphasizes, Dr. Koru was an assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Aegean University in Izmir. She was lecturing at the university while wearing her headscarf. When a national newspaper picked up the story and published Dr. Koru’s photo with headscarf, the rector of the university ignored the statement of the Ministry of Higher Education which allowed the “modern turban”2 and censured Dr. Koru from the university. In return Dr. Koru chose to protest the decision of the university and thus a legal battle began between the two parties. During the growing dispute some jurists maintained that according to the constitution there was no existing restriction on the headscarf. Eventually the court found the decision of the university to be right and the case was closed. 



February 28th Military Coup


There were different incidents like this after this date, but they are tolerated by Motherland Party. So, until the February 28th period, Muslim woman did not come across direct aggression to her headscarf. The headscarf became very visible in schools, universities, government buildings and other public spheres. However, with Seyfeddin Kara’s words, in 1997 the army felt that the democratic system of Turkey was under “threat” and initiated a “post-modern coup” that removed the democratically elected coalition government. Immediately after the military coup, the Generals delivered an ultimatum that “the YOK forbids any women who wear the closefitting headscarf from studying or teaching in higher education.” (HRW report, 2004: p.3). Furthermore, the military warned the government about women staff who wore headscarves and even some male officials whose wives wore the headscarf were asked to remove their headscarves. After this ultimatum a modern day witch-hunt began against practicing Muslim women in Turkey. Heavy restrictions were imposed upon students in high schools, universities, government staff, including elected MPs who wore the headscarf.




So, today, people are suffering from this problem. Although there is no any law in the Turkish constitution that has banned females from wearing the headscarf and there has only been a series of regulations, this ban is very active all fields of society. Today, many headscarved women should make a choice between their religious beliefs and their right to education or right to work. Actually, this dilemma has caused to some structural debates in resistance to headscarf ban. While some of the headscarf sufferers evaluate this problem in the context of secularist arguments such as education rights, others focus on religious arguments. But, before looking at this debate, we want to look at some incidents in different fields.



Incidents on a Headscarf Ban


Our incidents are consisting of documents of IHRC, CEDAW and HRW. 



There are some examples from a public and political life:

  • In May 2007, journalist Fatma Akin was insulted by Saadet Balci, a City Council Member of Republican People's Party at the city of Kirsehir. Akin was following a meeting at the Coucil when Balci insulted her because of her headscarf.

  • In July 2007, local head of Republican People's Party of the Avcilar district complained to the District Election Committee that three observers of the ballot box wear headscarves. They were subsequently removed from their duties.

  • In April 2006, Nuran Yiğit went to Kadıköy Council in order to pay her environment and estate tax. However, she was not allowed to enter to the building because of her ‘chador’ religious dress. Kadıköy Council denies the allegations but women dressed with chador are still not allowed to enter the council building.


Educational ban is not very different:

  • In February 1999, Nuray Bezirgan was detained once again, during a demonstration of headscarved students at Marmara University. She was four-and-a-half-months pregnant with twin boys. "I was not even part of the demonstration. I was waiting for a friend there," she recalls. When she fainted in the detention cell and was taken to the hospital she was told by the doctors that she had lost one of the babies. She also remembers that male protesters were beaten by the police and humiliated by officers. At some point during her hospitalization, an officer even tried to remove her from the hospital to take her to court despite doctors' objections (Today’s Zaman: Sep 26, 2008.)

  • In one of the recent incidents, Tevhide Kutuk was forced to step down from the stage of her high school after a military commander and the governor of the province shouted that she must be removed from the stage due to her headscarf. During a program organized in Adana to commemorate Teachers’ Day On 24th of November, 2007, 16- year-old Tevhide from Kozan’s Imam Hatip School was forced to leave the stage in tears, while waiting to receive a prize. The student, wearing a headscarf, had been waiting to receive a prize for her composition, when the city’s director of education, Mutlu Canbolat, removed her from the stage.

  • Şeyma Türkan was not permitted to register with Sütçü İmam University in September 2006, because of her wig.


  • Nagehan A. who is pursuing a distance learning degree in Islamic Studies sat for her exams in the city of Bartin. However, her exam paper was refused to be marked on October 2007, on the ground that she wore a wig to replace her headscarf.

  • In September 2007, a group of female students were not allowed to be registered to Çukurova University because of their headscarves.


Unfortunately, these are the examples of employment part of headscarf ban:

  • In June 2007, Aynur Goktas’ application to set up a souvenir shop was turned down by the mayor of Kusadasi. The mayor’s reason was that in the documents she had submitted for the application she had headscarved photos.


  • In November 2007, the local health authority launched an investigation into a medical assistant who wore the headscarf on a particular occasion.


  • In February 2008, Mayor of Edirne launched an investigation for Dr. Zeynep Mahmut, who was filmed wearing a headscarf while she was practicing in her surgery.


As last incidents, we want to focus on effect of ban over health and social-economic life. Here are examples:

  • In 2006, an investigation was launched against Dr Aysu Say, Head of the Pediatrics Department in Zeynep Kamil Hospital, who refused to treat a 5-year-old boy because his mother wore the niqab (veil). There was another incident in which Dr Say did not admit a 4-month-old baby into the hospital and allegedly caused her death in March 2006, because her mother wore the headscarf. She was only given a warning for her actions.

  • Another blatant implementation of the ban took place when Medine Bircan, a senior Turkish citizen, was denied cancer treatment at Istanbul Capa Medicine Faculty in 2002. The faculty denied the treatment due to her head-covered photo on another ID card. As of yet, there has not been an official investigation launched into the death of Medine Bircan and those responsible have yet to be made accountable.

  • In December 2007, the mother of 22 month old baby Z.K. was forced to leave her baby alone while he was anesthetized to undergo an operation and afterwards at Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty. The doctors said that she was not allowed to see her baby because she wore the headscarf. Her suggestion that she cover her head with surgical scrubs thus making her headscarf invisible was turned down by the doctors.

  • In April 2007, a group of students were not allowed to enter a public symposium organised by the Turkish Education Association and the Education Ministry at Dedeman Hotel, Istanbul.

  • In July 2007, the mother and two sisters (Aynur and Necla) of Private Enver Aydemir, who serves at the Gendarme Command Headquarters in the city of Bilecik, were not allowed to pay him a visit, because of their headscarves.

  • Neşe Gündoğar was not allowed to take a driving exam in February 2007 because she wore the headscarf.


Is it an educational/social or a religious problem?



Because the headscarf problem has important effects in history of Muslim population in Turkey, their reactions to this problem are very different. Some people focus on religious arguments, others insist on liberal arguments. In liberal view, this ban is a problem in the context of basic human rights. But, on the other hand, entering in elementary schools with headscarves is not acceptable because according to them, these girls cannot make an informed choice. So, people who defense a liberty for headscarf from the liberal argument do not accept some demands of other people who evaluate religion as a total and so think that it should be free in every age and every field. 


We witnessed this debate between so-called ‘liberal Muslims’ and so-called ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ in the last process. While AK Party government tries to solve this problem, it describes ‘demand on entering elementary schools with headscarves’ as a provocation act. This is very problematic approach. As we know, these people were resisting this ban for five or six years with their protest in every weekend. Before this headscarf packet, their demands were very clear and also are very clear. Some liberal Islamic institutions supported AK Party government in this attempt. So, today, there is an important debate here. Although people who resist to this ban demand a different thing, AK Party government tries to solve this problem by way of listening other people who were very silent in this process.


A press statement of OZGUR-DER


After this ‘provocation’ debate, The Free Thought and Education Rights Association, OZGUR-DER, issued a press statement about this theme.


While a head of OZGUR-DER, Rıdvan Kaya, emphasizes that there is no any legitimacy to ban headscarf anywhere, he criticized charging of provocation.


He focuses on that for people, who do not look for any provocation in the intervention of the state over people’s beliefs, labeling people who protect their Islamic values as a provocateur is rudeness and shamelessness. “Aggressor attitudes over against demand on entering elementary schools with headscarves are the product of invalid intellect.” he said.


Main points from this press statement are as follows:


-“Headscarf ban has been performed barbarically after February 28th period. There are many people ranged from academicians, politicians to lawyers, journalists who played an active role in this process. With the last developments, it is understood that after that, this ban cannot be performed. But these oppressors are trying to continue their oppression instead of apologizing from the people. Now, they demand that headscarf ban should continue in elementary and high schools in remuneration for solving this problem in universities.”


What’s it to you what our children wear?


-“They are trying to determine the norms and values of Muslims. And then they are saying that headscarf in elementary school is not acceptable. Are you fatwa authority? We are asking: What is to you? Why are you interested with people’s wearing?


Nowadays, some unhealthy intellects present their aggression over against demand on entering elementary schools with headscarves. Their psychology is not healthy.”


How about your children?... Do they choose themselves not to wear headscarf?


-“According to these aggressor, our children is not wearing headscarves with their own consciousness; pressure from their families are very effective. We are asking you: Where do you know it? Have you ever asked it or researched it?


Charging as a Provocateur is a sign of complex


“We are criticizing some Islamic institutions and people who joined the Kemalist orchestra in order to defense that headscarf in elementary school is not necessary. This is a sign of complex.”


AK Party should look for provocation in impositions of the state


-“In this context, we are reminding that Education Minister of AK Party government which describes demand on entering elementary schools with headscarves as a provocation and other officers  should  look for main provocation in the impositions of the state. If in any case we mention from a provocation, we should focuses on the practices of the state in which they impose compulsory education and also they determine what they wear. This is a very big dilemma.” 




Today millions of people are waiting this new arrangement in Turkey. As Kursat Bumin, from Yeni Safak Newspaper, mentions, the reason for the elimination of the de facto ban today is a change of staff at YÖK as the board was mostly composed of members who were in favor of the headscarf ban. Okay, this is right. But, I think, AK Party government should also take people who are main sufferer and their demands are not limited with AKP’s program into account.


Actually, there are parallels between IHRC’s recommendations and the demands of sufferer people from this ban:



“Therefore, these people expects the Turkish government and the political parties to remove all the barriers against women in political and public life, and to immediately halt her discriminatory policies towards headscarved girls and women in schools as well as those in higher education, and take all the necessary measures to include headscarved women within the education system i.e. giving them the opportunity to be able to continue their studies and to establish an independent body to assess the extent of the material and psychological damage that has been incurred upon headscarved students and compensate those damages.  



In addition to these, people expects the Turkish government to enact and enforce laws to remove any kind of discrimination against headscarved women in the workplace and to  stop preventing headscarved women from obtaining jobs and return the jobs of those who have been dismissed or forced to resign from their jobs due to their headscarves.



Lastly, they demand from the Turkish government to take every necessary measure to provide indiscriminate health service to headscarved or religiously dressed women at the highest level and through deterrent legislation, prevent any sort of discrimination”



As last sentences, if we want to solve this problem in Turkey, firstly, we should focus on its structural ground. Otherwise, maybe it can be liberal oppression for people instead of secularist oppression. So, AK Party government cannot see this problem only consisted of universities. Its scope is very large; it should be taken into account. Maybe, ‘demand on entering elementary schools with headscarves’ can be a main point rather than provocation.



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