Why the end of the headscarf ban is good for secularists


Thursday, October 21, 2010

It’s business as usual in Turkey. The ruling Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in power since 2002, received another ringing endorsement from the voters – this time on its proposal for constitutional reform. And, just like after its previous major triumph – in the parliamentary elections in 2007 – the AKP seems to be more interested in lifting the headscarf ban in the universities, a hot-button issue for its electorate, than in pressing for a full reform that would enhance individual freedoms for all and enjoy support across Turkey’s various divides. What is different this time is that the main opposition secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, seems to be ready to support the government on the headscarf issue.

It is right for CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to do so. Much has been written about the unjustness of this ban insofar as it denies adult women their right to dress as they please. What is seldom mentioned is that the end of the ban could actually be good news for Turkish secularists.

Setting the headscarf free will deny the AKP and the wider conservative constituency one of the two main grievances (the other one being the Palestinian issue) that glues it together. The AKP will have to compete on real, bread and butter, issues, rather than symbolic ones. The headscarf ban explains why the AKP, despite being in power for eight years, is still able to portray itself as an underdog party. Now the military tutelage has effectively been abolished, removing the headscarf ban is another decisive step to end this aberration.

Second, the end of the state-enforced ban on headscarves will shift the attention to the problem of "neighborhood pressure" – a term coined by prominent Turkish sociologist Şerif Mardin to describe the creeping imposition of conservative and religious norms on the country. Abundant examples of this pressure were reported in the research project led by another Turkish scholar, Binnaz Toprak, in 2008. The findings of this study suggest that many women wear headscarves for reasons other than faith and choice. 

Seen from this perspective, the choice of the woman who, after studying religious texts and considering other alternatives, has decided to veil herself can reasonably be deemed free. However, if a woman has done so simply by bowing to the expectations of others in her family, community, neighborhood or village, the actual freedom of her choice should be questioned. It would be naive to assume that all the girls strolling down İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul in their fashionable headscarves have made a fully free and informed choice to cover themselves, much less so their counterparts in small Anatolian towns. Veiling is not a spontaneous trend. It should be seen within the context of a conscious campaign to, as Perry Anderson put it in his elegantly written “New Old Order,” bend the society in a more consistently observant mould. This includes faith-based literature, religious courses, advice from the state-run Religious Affairs Directorate and coercion, as well as more subtle forms of pressure, even Islamic fashion.

AKP rule has greatly enhanced this trend. When Turkish women accept the first lady and other covered wives of the AKP leaders as their role models, it is not because they have suddenly become more pious. It is because the headscarf now symbolizes their belonging to the “right” community. There is a widespread perception that government contracts and promotions are now more easily available to men whose wives are covered.

In the meantime, the reality of women who object to the headscarf and other forms of veiling is distorted. Their concerns about the veiling trend are dismissed as the prejudices of “upper-class, elite, Westernized” women, alien to “the values and the culture of the nation.” If lifting the headscarf ban is an exercise in democracy, nothing can excuse the failure to take the concerns and fears of these women very seriously. Islamic conservatives and their liberal allies must accept that it is not only the state that cannot impose on the woman the way she lives and dresses, but also other people, be it family, neighborhood or religious community.

The third reason secularists should welcome the end of the ban is because it could re-invigorate their intellectual opposition to the headscarf as opposed to relying on the state to repress it. They should base their arguments not on the outdated discourse of “reaching Western civilization,” but on the broader issues of gender equality and female advancement. There is an intrinsic link between the headscarf and inequality. The headscarf sexually segregates women and men, erects countless walls between them, with women mostly relegated to home-making duties. The republican Kemalist project has been caricaturized by conservatives and liberals alike as a poor mimicry of the West, but the fact remains that by discarding the veil and promoting sexually mixed public space it achieved much better results in liberating women than any Islamist project.

While the AKP has distanced itself in many ways from it’s explicitly Islamist predecessors, its views on gender issues remain heavily patriarchal. It is no coincidence that under the AKP Turkey is seriously slipping in terms of women’s employment, political participation and leadership. While women are numerous and often occupy leading positions in secular institutions, such as the top business club Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, or TÜSİAD, they are firmly confined to the backstage in the conservative establishment.

Secularists are right to oppose the headscarf. However, bans and discrimination are not only unjust and undemocratic, they are also counterproductive. What secularists should aim at instead is creating conditions that would make the use of the headscarf redundant in the long run: support free and informed choice for every woman as opposed to relying on state and/or community pressure and work relentlessly to achieve real gender equality.

*Eldar Mamedov is an international relations analyst based in Brussels.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News