SEYFETTİN GÜRSEL

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SEYFETTİN GÜRSEL
May 13, 2013, Monday

Working women and the headscarf

I was surprised when reading a story in Saturday's edition of Today's Zaman which indicated that the four main political parties in Parliament have agreed to allow public servants to wear the headscarf. According to Today's Zaman, the parliamentary Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, which is working on drafting a new civilian constitution, has reached a compromise to add an article in the new constitution that will allow women to wear headscarves in public service positions.

Discussing an article on freedom of religion, conscience and belief, members of the commission compromised finally on the hotly debated article by including the following principle in it: “No one can be prohibited from or denounced for fulfilling the requirements of their religious beliefs.” This wording does not explicitly say that women can wear the headscarf while working in the public service, but its spirit does afford this freedom, according to Today's Zaman's interpretation.

I was surprised by this compromise because the Republican People's Party (CHP), particularly its Kemalist wing, was firmly opposed to including such a principle in the new constitution, fearing that this would allow covered women to work in the public service. I learned from Today's Zaman's piece of news that a compromise was reached in the absence of the representative of the CHP hardcore Kemalists on the parliamentary Constitution Reconciliation Commission, namely Süheyl Batum, an Eskişehir deputy.

The two other CHP representatives who were at the meeting and supported the compromise were Rıza Türmen and Atilla Kart, both of whom belong to the left-leaning faction of the CHP. It seems that Mr. Batum is furious, seeing that he told reporters: “The agreement is the result of a mistake. We [the CHP] do not support such an article in the new constitution. It will erode the principle of secularism. It is against the principle of Turkey being a secular state.” Anyway, the new constitution has other problems and the chances to draft a new constitution are rapidly diminishing. Nevertheless, what is sure is that the existing fracture within the CHP will worsen with this new episode.

I hope with the new constitution or without it, educated, covered women will be allowed to apply for public positions in the near future. Basically for two reasons: First, this is simply their right in terms of universal human rights and any kind of discrimination must be prohibited in a democracy. Regarding the claimed threat to secularism, I cannot see any relationship between a headscarf in public service and secularism. But I would on the other hand like to note, albeit it is not the purpose of this article, carrying various religious symbols could raise problems in some specific professions, like for members of the judiciary. Secondly, the freedom to wear headscarves in the public service is good for the economy.

This ban on headscarves dates back to the 1980 coup d'état. Military rulers implemented a regulation stipulating that women who wear a headscarf cannot be employed by the state. Currently, state offices do not hire women who wear a headscarf.

In 2004 there were only 856,000 university-educated women in the labor force according to Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) data. This number increased to 1,889,000 in 2012. We do not have any idea about the share of covered women among them, but we can guess that it increased and will be increasing more rapidly since the ban on headscarves imposed for many years in universities was only removed in 2010, while the appetite for higher education among young women wearing headscarves is spreading.

Continuing to ban women from public service will have an adverse effect, for sure, either on the unemployment rate of female university graduates or female labor force participation. Do not forget that the unfriendly climate regarding covered women in employment encourages private companies to deny them jobs as well, despite the fact that there is no law that prohibits the use of a headscarf in private business.

Let me reiterate that the unemployment rate among female university graduates is actually 14.7 percent, much higher than the correspondent male rate, which is at 7.2 percent, and the overall female labor force participation rate is at 30 percent, being far lower than rates in Southern European countries, where it varies between 55 and 65 percent. It is well known that the more women are educated, the more female participation we will see in the labor force, which is one of the prerequisites of economic development. Banning the headscarf from public service will not help economic development.

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