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A veiled agenda in Turkey

by Agnes Poirier

Friday 11 July 2008

(Published in: The Guardian, UK, March 7, 2008)

The government’s change of the law banning headscarves is seen by some Turkish women as divisive and an attack on their freedom

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected on a vast programme of reforms, has been in power for eight months, yet one of his only acts to date has been the removal of the constitutional ban on wearing a headscarf at universities. A week spent in Istanbul among university students and professors shows that, even among supporters of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, the mood has shifted.

Pro-Europeans, business leaders and liberals were expecting political reforms in line with European standards, a civilian-drafted constitution, and the abolishment of article 301, which makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime - not the end of the ban of headscarves at universities, a very divisive issue for which a majority have mixed feelings. For all their talk of reforms, some fear Erdogan’s AKP and its ultra-conservative political ally, the Nationalist Movement party (MHP), have other priorities for Turkey.

"I wouldn’t be so concerned by students wearing headscarves at universities, if I didn’t feel it might be the beginning of a much wider and more serious attack on secularism, the very foundation of Turkey" says science PhD student Yildiz from Bogaziçi University. Professor Ahmet Koman, head of department at the faculty of arts and sciences, thinks the headscarf hides the real issues at the heart of the Turkish malaise: "Here, at the University of Bogaziçi, we have always defended students’ personal choice to wear or not the headscarf and have actually tolerated it in part, long before the removal of the ban. We respect the personal choice but when the headscarf is used as a political and proselyte tool, then it is unacceptable. Actually, it looks as if this amendment has been so far used to divide our society and delay the real profound reforms the country needs."

Of the dozen teachers and professors I met, many, like Ahmet Koman were quite mellow about the end of the ban itself. Female students, on the other hand, were almost all disturbed and angry by what they consider as an attack on their freedom, and not, as is presented by some, as a move to free universities. Goknur, a PhD student of both Montpellier and Istanbul universities, explains what it feels like being a young woman in Turkey today: "Turkey may be secular but 90% of the population is Muslim. On paper, Turkey is a modern country where women enjoy equal rights with men but in reality, traditions are still ruling the way we live and interact: a woman who chooses not to wear the headscarf is still considered by many as a traitor. Men often don’t shake your hand, or simply refuse to acknowledge your presence. Since 1923, the Republic has allowed public places where we’re free from the weight of religion but outside of these places, women’s life is still very much a daily fight." What does she reply when told that a group of Turkish women who wanted to wear the headscarf had to flee to the UK, and the London School of Economics in particular, in order to study freely, as Madeleine Bunting wrote last week? "The London School of Economics is well-known for its links with Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist Hodja, and those students represent but a marginal group. And since when was wearing a veil a sign of women’s freedom? Liberals in Europe should support us, women, who try to make Turkey a modern society, rather than support religious people out of some old-fashioned Oriental romanticism."

Hülya, a Master’s student in film studies, voices her fears for the future: "The removal of the ban is going to divide classes between the veiled - who are supposedly good girls - and all of us, not wearing the headscarf, who will be branded as bad Muslim women. Can you imagine the pressure to conform for first-year students? Most, I guess, will be tempted to wear the headscarf just to stop the moral harassment and nasty looks. Is this progress?"

According to a survey carried out by TÜIK (Institute of demographic studies in Turkey), 237 000 women in Turkey have left their work to become full-time housewives since the arrival to power of "moderate Islamist" Erdogan.