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TESEV report examines headscarf debate, offers solutions

10 June 2012, Sunday /FATMA DIŞLI ZIBAK
The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) has prepared a report on Turkey’s longstanding headscarf problem, which has victimized hundreds of thousands of women so far, and formulated a variety of solutions that will help settle the issue of the controversial ban nationwide.

The report, titled “An assessment of the headscarf ban and suggestions,” was prepared by Özge Genç and Ebru İlhan between October 2010 and February 2011. Genç and İlhan met with political actors and representatives from non-governmental organizations in İstanbul and Ankara, and attended a workshop on the headscarf problem held in Ankara in November 2010, in which political party representatives, prime ministerial bureaucrats and academics participated.

Examining the history of the headscarf ban in Turkey, TESEV’s report says the implementation of the ban began with a circular issued by the then rector of İstanbul University on 23 February 1998, just a year after a military coup in which the coalition government, led by the now-defunct conservative Welfare Party (RP), was overthrown on the grounds of rising religious fundamentalism in the country.

The report says although there was no change in the law or the Constitution, despite students being permitted to attend university with headscarves previously, the ban was imposed as a condition of the continuation of their university education.

The report thus emphasizes the lack of legal foundation in the implementation of the ban.

“It is undoubtedly the headscarf ban that is the most striking example of how the law can be utilized by political authorities and how illegitimacy can be generated by the hand of the law,” the report reads.

TESEV’s report points out headscarf-wearing women have suffered discrimination due to their scarves not only at the hands of the state but also society. Discrimination against these women is discernible in every walk of life, from public buildings to private workplaces.

Until 2010, headscarf-wearing students were not able to attend university due to a strict ban on the use of headscarves. The ban was eased by a circular sent to universities by the Higher Education Board (YÖK). Regardless, some university administrations and lecturers still refuse to allow headscarf-wearing students to attend university. The wearing of the headscarf is banned at primary and high schools, in addition to public buildings. Some private workplaces also refuse to employ scarf-wearing women due to concerns about their image.

According to TESEV, it is crucial to address the headscarf problem in the new Constitution Turkey is currently drafting to replace its current coup-era model. However, they state there is no necessity to add an article specifically in relation to freedom to wear the headscarf.

“If the new Constitution’s spirit is in line with fundamental rights and freedoms, if it does not include articles that are open to interpretation by authoritarian and pro-security authorities who seek to legitimate bans, if a clear and exact definition of secularism is made, the headscarf problem will be resolved on the basis of the freedom of faith and conscience,” the report says.

Nevertheless, it notes that resolution of the headscarf issue in the Constitution may not be a practical plan, as the drafting is an uncertain process at the present time.

Among the amendments suggested by the report in order to clear obstacles for headscarf-wearing women in all areas are to the Civil Servants Law No. 657 and Political Parties Law. It further suggests that the draft law on anti-discrimination and equality, Ombudsman Law and constitutional articles approved in a 2010 referendum should be made use of to resolve the headscarf problem.

The report also notes that Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership could be a motivating factor for the country to resolve the headscarf problem, while lamenting the fact that the EU has so far failed to urge Turkey to address the issue, despite the fact that one of the democratic goals of the bloc is to maintain freedom of conscience and faith and to fight against discrimination.

According to TESEV, the EU fails to highlight the headscarf issue in Turkey because the use of headscarves is also a problem in some European countries, and no consensus has yet been reached regarding the resolution of this problem. “This report suggests that the European Commission should voice its opinion in all of its progress reports on Turkey that the headscarf problem in the country should be brought to an end in all areas,” says the report.

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