Almost all Turkish universities have abandoned the official prohibition on Islamic headscarves on their campuses; the ban itself ended in September when the government said that it would support any student expelled or disciplined for wearing a headscarf. The ban did not target the traditional scarves worn by women in Anatolia, but rather the hijab, also called a “turban” in Turkey, which has become a symbol of pious or political Islam and was adopted by many urban, educated women in the 1980′s and 1990′s.
Although approximately 60 percent of Turkish women wear a headscarf, the ban was implemented as part of an effort to secularize university spaces. Students were forced to wear wigs or large hats to avoid going bare-headed. Other women simply went abroad to study. In 2008, the prime minister tried to get rid of the ban through a constitutional amendment that passed through the legislature but was eventually thrown out by the Constitutional Court.
“The reason why we don’t allow a headscarf for, say a judge, is that it is a symbol of religion. The state should be impartial to race, religion, everything,” explained Hursit Gunes, a deputy secretary-general of the secular CHP, the main opposition party.
Civil servants are forbidden to wear headscarves, and lawyers are still barred from wearing them in court, which significantly impedes female lawyers like Fatma Benli, who has to appoint proxies to defend her clients. Ironically, Benli specializes in defending women, so the prohibition on headscarves, which has been supported by some feminists who believe that the headscarf is a symbol of male oppression, can in some ways set women back further.
Sociologist Dilek Cindoglu says that the disadvantages that begin in the civil service spill over into the private sector: “Once they get employment they are being discriminated against in terms of promotions, salaries, and in terms of dismissals should the company decide to reduce the workforce.”
A Human Rights Watch report released in 2004 concluded that the headscarf ban ultimately stifled academic freedom, forcing the resignation of female professors and preventing some women from attending universities at all. “The Turkish authorities say they want to protect women who choose not to wear the headscarf,” said Rachel Denber of the HRW. “But bullying women out of higher education because of the way they choose to dress is a poor way to protect women’s freedoms.”
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.