The divisive dilemma facing Turkish feminists

Anyone who is pro womens’ rights in Turkey is almost automatically against more rights for women wearing a headscarf. Ever since devout Muslims gained political and economic power, Turkish feminists have been in an awkward position.

The fact that it was the political party representing devout Muslims that lifted the headscarf ban at universities makes Handan Koç angry. “Of course”, says the Turkish feminist, “as many women as possible have to be able to go to university. But in this case, it’s the first step on the path of Turkey becoming a religious state.”
So, going to university is fine, but that’s about all the rights that women who wear headscarves should get, argues Handan Koç. She is not the only one in the Turkish feminist movement who feels this way. Nilgün Yardalan, also a feminist, is in a minority when she says: “We as feminist middle class women have to fight side by side with headscarved women. They have a right to be full members of Turkish society.”

Even though of course women with a headscarf are nothing new in Turkey, the issue is relatively new in the Turkish women’s movement. Nilgün Yurdalan, active in the movement for decades and now working for feminist magazine Amargi, explains that women who wear a headscarf were living in a different world to the middle class women who ran the feminist movement. “We secular women were the modern face of Turkey, that’s how we felt. We were the focal point of city life, we felt secure, safe and strong in the secular republic.” And still the urban landscape is defined by modern, working and well educated women, but nowadays another group is clearly visible: young, self-confident women wearing a headscarf. They still have quite a battle ahead of them. They are not allowed to go to classes wearing a scarf, an academic career with a headscarf is out of the question, and working with covered head for the state or a state-sponsored institution is not possible either. And the private sector? They too are not  keen to hire them. Nilgün Yurdalan: “This has confused many feminist women. As a Turkish secularist you have to be against a public role for religion, but what if the measures against religion largely only effect women because they are recognisable by their scarf as devout Muslims and the men are not?”

A constitutional change

The matter caused considerable political controversy earlier this year. The ruling AK Party, a conservative party with practising Islamic leaders, decided last spring to lift the headscarf ban at universities. The party tried to change the constitution to that end, but the Constitutional Court overruled the change, calling it anti-secular. So the headscarf ban is still in place. By the way, the ban was introduced only around ten years ago, is not set down in any law but based on jurisprudence and regulations of the powerful Higher Education Board (YÖK). Still, a constitutional change was necessary to lift the ban: the judicial authorities and YÖK are, like the army, known for defending the secular state very strictly, and around ten years ago they did that by interpreting laws in a way that gave practical effect to the headscarf ban. Only a constitutional change would undo the interpretation of certain laws, and an amendment was drafted which clearly stated that nobody could be excluded from higher education because of the way they dressed. The Constitutional Court once again revealed its inflexibility: even though it is not its task to rule on the content of laws but only on the legislative process of their drafting, it rejected the constitutional changes based upon their content, and nobody could challenge the Court, because there’s no higher level in the judicial system.

A major injustice

The headscarf ban was introduced at a time when economic growth was bringing more prosperity to Turkish cities in the Anatolian hinterland and to the religious conservatives living there. They acquired more economic power, and with it came political power: it was these people who brought the AK Party to power in 2002 and gave the party an even stronger mandate in the 2007 elections. They were ‘rewarded’ for that with the lifting of the headscarf ban, a major injustice in the eyes of AKP followers.
Ever since then  women’s rights advocates have been in an awkward position. The fight for women’s rights was never related to the rights of Islamic women, but came as a consequence of the rights that the father of Turks, Atatürk, granted to women almost a century ago, like the right to vote, obligatory education for both boys and girls, and more equality in family law. But Atatürk was also the man who ruthlessly relegated religion to the private domain, and by so doing laid the basis of the strict Turkish secularism. According to strict secularists, every opportunity that religion is given in public life is one step closer to an Islamic state in which all the achievements of the secular republic will vanish. Women’s rights are an important part of those achievements. Being pro Atatürk, as any true feminist is, and at the same time advocating more rights for Islamic women, is causing a divisive dilemma in the movement.

Being a wife and a mother

A check with the different feminist organisations reveals that most of them support giving headscarved women the right to go to university, but beyond that there is no unanimity. Every organisation says the internal discussion about the topic is fierce and that they cannot come up with one opinion that represents the whole organisation. Also the women interviewed for this article stress that they only speak for themselves.
Handan Koç has been active as a feminist for about twenty years and is now connected to the Pazartesi Kollektief, which of late mainly publishes academic series on women’s themes. She claims that women who wear the headscarf are not in favour of equality between the sexes. “They are tesettür”, she says, meaning that wearing a headscarf is part of a package. “A package in which you prioritize Islamic law over secular law. In which you are not allowed to work with men, and in which your most important role as a woman is being a wife and mother. So why do they want to have all sorts of positions in society?” Allowing headscarves at universtiy is, according to Koç, only a strategy: as soon as Turkey is turned into an Islamic state, freedom will be taken away from all women. With fire in her eyes she adds: “We as feminists have to be in principal against everything the AK Party decides. I’m a radical feminist. For me there’s no grey, there’s only black and white.”

Freedom of religion

Anyone who talks with the women themselves won’t get the impression that they willingly, knowingly and secretly work towards the establishment of an Islamic state. Take (anonymous, she asked me to remove her name online), 28 years old. As a child, her family sent her to an Islamic boarding school, and from age ten she had to wear a headscarf. X: “They stimulated me to develop myself, but there was also an atmosphere of ‘us Islamics’ against ‘them from the state’. I didn’t like that. When I was fourteen, I switched to a normal secondary school. I didn’t want to be part of such a strict group, I wanted to be part of normal Turkish life. And I wanted to go to university, which was not possible if you had attended an Islamic school. The headscarf ban didn’t yet exist,then, but was introduced just when I was about to start my first year sociology, in 1998. For me, it was not an option to take my scarf off. I want to make my own choices about my religion and about how I look. When I was a girl, it was not my own choice to start wearing it, but now it is my own choice not to take it off. I think it’s part of my freedom of religion. And I still feel terrible about the fact that eventually my personal development was blocked by strict scholars on the other side of the spectrum.”

Now X. earns her income as a freelance graphic designer. “But”, she says, “it has always been a source of frustration that I couldn’t study. My brothers did go to university. They are just as Islamic as I am, only it’s not visible.” Frustration is also apparent in the interview with Zeliha Sağlam (32). She studied in Malaysia and is about to leave for the USA to get her Master’s in economics. And after that? “I don’t know”, she answers. “I may have to work abroad, because in Turkey it’s hard to make a career wearing a headscarf. But I’m Turkish, I want to contribute to my own country. I am pro separation of state and religion, I am pro democracy, pro human rights. But all that doesn’t count, I’m only judged by my scarf.” According to these women, the secular establishment is mainly scared of losing its priviliged position to the rising Islamic middle class.

The other face of modern Turkey

Nilgün Yurdalan earlier this year drew up a declaration together with some other feminists. After a lot of discussion, they concluded that Islamic women were entitled to be supported in their struggle for more rights. The declaration, written in collaboration with some headscarved women, stated that from now on they would fight side by side for a full position in society for women wearing the headscarf. Yurdalan: “As feminists, we were never before confronted to this extent by our own beliefs. It confused me, and still many women from strict secular backgrounds are confused about this issue. In my talks with headscarved women, I became convinced that this is not a religious issue but a women’s issue and that headscarved women deserve the support of feminists. It is partly thanks to our struggle that they can also get permission from their families to study, to delay getting married and becoming a mother, to make their own choices. So how can we abandon them now?” The group hardly got any support: only 1,500 women signed it, all of them in the three biggest Turkish cities where in all more than ten million women live. Nilgün Yurdalan: “Unfortunately there’s only a few feminists who see women with a headscarf as the other face of modern Turkey.”

(Published in a slightly shortened version in feminist monthly magazine Opzij)

1 reply
  1. Tayyib Agha
    Tayyib Agha says:

    As a journalist, you should actually get around to researching what the word secular actually means. It means the state is neutral on matters of religion. That is all.


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