Up for debate once more: Politics and the scarf in Turkey


On Sept. 30, 2013, then Top Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan introduced what he termed a “democratization package deal,” which lifted the decades-old ban on ladies dressed in headscarves in lots of state establishments. A month later, when 4 feminine MPs dressed in headscarves walked into the Turkish parliament, many concept the long-running controversy at the factor used to be in spite of everything over. However the headband not too long ago returned to the middle of the Turkish political debate when the chief of the primary secularist opposition Republican Other folks’s Birthday party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, introduced that he would introduce regulation to offer protection to that proper. Kılıçdaroğlu’s transfer, aimed toward interesting to conservative segments of the rustic forward of the impending June 2023 elections, precipitated a flurry of responses from secularist Twitter customers, ladies’s organizations, and opposition events, making transparent that the social anxieties surrounding the problem are a long way from resolved. Girls who put on the scarf are involved that they are going to lose the rights they secured beneath Erdoğan if the opposition involves energy. Secularists worry that Kılıçdaroğlu’s proposed regulation would pave the best way for an Iran-style necessary headband. The important thing to allay the ones fears is to enshrine in regulation ladies’s proper to make a choice. Most effective then can the rustic extend freedoms for all and save you politicians from the use of ladies’s our bodies as symbols of political ideology.

Each the secularists’ ban at the headband and Erdoğan’s “democratization package deal” that lifted it have been introduced within the title of emancipating ladies. In truth, alternatively, they each sought to impose their very own model of the best lady on society. For Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the best lady used to be the “republican lady,” who represented his imaginative and prescient of a contemporary, Westernized, and secular state. Thru top-down reforms, Atatürk sought after to refashion a standard society right into a Western one. Public symbols equivalent to get dressed turned into the cornerstone of that radical exchange. The “republican lady” used to be anticipated to give a contribution to the republic’s fashionable, secular transformation — a job that entailed liberating herself from non secular norms round clothes.

The novel reforms Atatürk performed expanded the civil and political rights of girls significantly. As early because the Twenties, ladies in Turkey won the precise to make a choice their spouses, start up divorce, and insist kid custody. They have been granted get admission to to schooling and the precise to vote and run in municipal and nationwide elections. All of those reforms higher the visibility of girls within the public sphere and afforded them alternatives related to these in Western international locations. But Atatürk’s reforms didn’t actually emancipate ladies. In spite of claims on the contrary, the brand new regulations and rules didn’t be certain gender equality. As a substitute of difficult the gender roles enforced by way of the outdated regime, they only changed the Islamic patriarchy of the Ottoman Empire with an earthly one. One of the crucial key causes for this continuity used to be Atatürk’s definition of womanhood. He noticed motherhood as ladies’s maximum vital function and defended the adjustments made by way of the state now not as an effort to extend their rights on a person stage, however as a way to lift “enlightened” moms and other halves. Those reforms denied ladies selfhood. The “republican lady” in her “Western” apparel and together with her exposed hair turned into the logo of the brand new republic’s fashionable, Western, and secular id, however remained subservient to the state and the patriarchy it enforced.

Atatürk’s reforms had different issues as neatly. They have been simplest followed by way of city, middle-class ladies, who have been keen to decorate in tactics the state deemed “fashionable,” and discriminated in opposition to massive segments of rural, lower-class, conventional ladies, who wore the scarf. The regulations and insurance policies imposed by way of secularist elites in next years, such because the ban on dressed in the scarf in public establishments, together with universities, imposed within the aftermath of the 1980 army coup, violated the elemental rights of veiled ladies.

When Erdoğan lifted the ban in 2013, many applauded the transfer as a important construction that may bolster freedoms and democracy. Certainly, it used to be an extended past due reform, however like the former steps taken within the title of emancipating ladies, it didn’t advance freedoms for all. Identical to the secularists, Erdoğan too noticed ladies’s apparel as a logo of his imaginative and prescient for the rustic. After sidelining his secularist fighters, Erdoğan became to Islam to mobilize improve for setting up an govt presidency that may grant him unchecked powers. To safe the consent of conservative segments of the rustic for his energy grasp, he sought to Islamicize society by way of selling “Sunni Muslim domination” in each sector of social, financial, and political lifestyles. Underneath his watch, Islam turned into pervasive, in particular in issues associated with the circle of relatives, schooling, and regulation. Non secular orders and communities that sponsored Erdoğan’s autocratic imaginative and prescient took up key positions within the state forms. Lifting the ban at the headband used to be emblematic of Erdoğan’s broader Islamist populist time table. Whilst it addressed the human rights violations dedicated in opposition to veiled ladies, it additionally victimized those that make a selection to not quilt their hair. Girls with out headscarves are matter to harassment and discrimination within the administrative center. In a telling instance, a couple of days after Erdoğan lifted the ban at the headband, the deputy chairman of his birthday party criticized a feminine TV display host for dressed in a revealing shirt on air. The channel brushed aside her in a while afterwards.

In spite of the modern steps taken at the headband factor, ladies in Turkey lately are in a worse position with regards to hard work participation, management, get admission to to finance, civil and political freedoms, schooling, and well being. Closing yr the Global Financial Discussion board’s International Gender Hole Document, which measures those elements, ranked Turkey 133rd out of 156 international locations. Erdoğan’s perspectives on ladies account for a lot of the backsliding. He by no means actually meant to free up them, whether they put on a headband. Just like the leaders who got here sooner than him, he does now not imagine in gender equality. He sees ladies simplest as moms or other halves, now not as people. He describes start regulate as “treason,” tells ladies that “rejecting motherhood manner giving up on humanity,” and urges them to have a minimum of 3 kids. Erdoğan’s discriminatory, misogynistic, and sexist statements perpetuate and result in extra violence in opposition to ladies. Closing yr, he introduced that Turkey used to be pulling out of the Istanbul Conference, a Eu treaty to fight violence in opposition to ladies. Since then, the choice of femicides has skyrocketed. Males really feel extra empowered to behave with out worry of repercussions and courts grant perpetrators impunity.

The foundation reason for the discrimination, inequality, and violence ladies face in Turkey is the patriarchal construction that has denied them the facility to workout company as people. Each the secularists and the Islamists noticed ladies because the embodiment in their nationwide visions. The “republican lady” used to be anticipated to decorate and behave in a way dictated by way of the state. She used to be a “citizen lady” anticipated to give a contribution to Atatürk’s imaginative and prescient for the rustic. In Erdoğan’s Turkey, ladies serve a an identical serve as. As soon as once more, they’re the logo of his imaginative and prescient, a relentless reminder for Erdoğan’s fighters and supporters of the victory of Sunni Islam and the secularists’ defeat.

The important thing to actually freeing ladies is to empower them as people and legislate ladies’s proper to make a choice. If it is about when or whether or not to be pregnant, what number of kids to have, or whether or not to put on a headband or now not, ladies will have to be unfastened to come to a decision for themselves. Kılıçdaroğlu’s proposed invoice, which seeks to safeguard the precise of girls’s employment in public establishments without or with a headband, is a superb first step in making sure ladies’s proper to make a choice and empowering them to reject patriarchal norms that experience animated each the secularist regime and its conservative fighters.


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Center East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow for the Frontier Europe Initiative. She is the writer of Erdogan’s Warfare: A Strongman’s Combat at House and in Syria

Photograph by way of Erhan Demirtas/Bloomberg by the use of Getty Pictures

The Center East Institute (MEI) is an unbiased, non-partisan, non-for-profit, instructional group. It does now not interact in advocacy and its students’ critiques are their very own. MEI welcomes monetary donations, however keeps sole editorial regulate over its paintings and its publications mirror simplest the authors’ perspectives. For an inventory of MEI donors, please click on here.



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