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April 26, 2012, Thursday

The headscarf issue, 15 years later

The headscarf and the discrimination many women face because they wear it is an issue that has been much written about, and one that has also often been used as a political tool. Yet it is a problem that cannot be ignored since it is one involving basic human rights and the prejudice associated with it continues to blight the lives of thousands of women in Turkey.

As Turkey debates the postmodern coup of Feb. 28, 1997, the topic has inevitably resurfaced since covered women, due to their visibility, were its main target. A timely report just published by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) think tank, prepared by Özge Genç and Ebru İlhan, brings us up-to-date with the situation as it has evolved over the past 15 years, revealing a problem that is increasingly complex and entrenched and can no longer be attributed solely to tension between secularists and conservatives.

Conservatives continue to point to anti-headscarf policies as evidence of the legacy of the discrimination pious people suffered at the hands of ultra-secular state institutions. They are not entirely wrong, but the fact that 10 years after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, covered women still face discrimination in all areas of public life shows that the problem is multi-dimensional. Covered women experience discrimination not just because of their faith, but also because of their gender, and conservative perceptions of women contribute to their problems. The report suggests that in its current form, the ban on headscarves that persists in public life is the product of a “religious-secular coalition.”

Much has been made in recent days of Emine Erdoğan’s appearance in the National Assembly on April 23 to mark National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. It was clearly an important step since, until very recently, elected politicians, and even President Abdullah Gül, felt they couldn’t bring their headscarved wives to official receptions.

It would be wrong, however, to believe that the problem has been solved. It is one thing for a covered woman to enter Parliament as the prime minister’s wife, quite another for a woman wearing a headscarf to take a seat in the national assembly. Nothing much has changed since Merve Kavakçı, who was elected in 1999 but was booted out of Parliament when she tried to take her oath. Yet to this day, as TESEV points out, there is nothing in parliamentary regulations that would prevent a covered woman from serving as a deputy. But political parties, including the ruling party, remain reluctant to field covered candidates. The AKP put one covered candidate on its electoral list last year, sufficiently low to ensure she would not be elected. Prime Minister Erdoğan explained that his party wanted to avoid unnecessary tension. But, as we’ve often seen, Mr. Erdoğan rarely shies away from confrontation when he deems a cause worth fighting for: Not only has the AKP successfully challenged the military, but it recently transformed the country’s education system single-handedly in the face of strong opposition. The rights of religious women to play an active role in politics are clearly not a priority.

When, last October, Parliament was discussing new regulations to allow female MPs to wear trousers, Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder proposed adding an amendment to ease access to Parliament for covered women, but instead of seizing the opportunity, the prime minister dismissed Önder’s proposal as “insincere.” In universities, the ban on the “türban,” strictly enforced in the aftermath of the Feb. 28 coup, has been relaxed to some extent in the past few years. But TESEV points out that while students may face fewer obstacles to enter university, they are still arbitrarily blocked from entering libraries or denied health services. In the workplace too, covered women still have limited options. The bureaucracy remains out of reach to them and many private sector firms prefer to showcase employees seen as presenting a more “modern” image. Conservative employers too are often reluctant to hire covered women, either out of concern that it might make the firm a target of the secularists or simply because they believe women should stay at home and look after their families. Some interviewees stated that some religious employers even take advantage of the situation, offering covered women low-paid positions or imposing long working hours, knowing that the women have few alternatives. The female workforce participation rate is very low in Turkey anyway, and women wearing headscarves face an additional layer of prejudice compared to their peers.

In the 15 years since state institutions launched their crackdown on the headscarf, Turkish society has changed considerably. In spite of the hurdles placed in their way, women from conservative circles have gained university degrees in greater numbers and many more women who wear a headscarf want a chance to participate fully in public life. But TESEV researchers stated that they saw little evidence that decision makers were working to address the problem, which is one of many shortcomings that still undermine Turkish democracy. In fact, they refer to the headscarf issue as a “Bermuda triangle” that no political party wants to enter, as they hope instead that the problem will solve itself.

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