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Tug-of-war over Islamic headscarf

Turkey banned headscarves over 20 years ago, and the debate is still raging. It now symbolises a wider political battle over what sort of state Turkey should be.

For more than two decades a battle over headscarves has raged in staunchly secular but Muslim-majority Turkey, where women are forbidden to wear the Islamic headscarf in public places, most notably state schools and government institutions.

The ban affects thousands of female students forced to boycott schools and universities. Teachers who refuse to enforce the ban have been fired and charged under anti-terrorist laws. In late 2003, the ban dominated media headlines when President Ahmet Necdet Sezar refused to invite veiled wives of members of the ruling party to a palace reception.

Nevertheless, secular groups such as Turkey's military, many academics, feminists and writers welcome the French decision.

"In Turkey, the turban [as the traditional Islamic headscarf is known] has always been an issue of 'backwardness' against 'modernity'," says Ayse Kadioglu, a professor at the Political Science Department at the Sabanci University.

For secularists, the French decision provided a sound Western justification for the Turkish ban, even though a recent study shows 64 per cent of Turkish women wear the headscarf.

The French government believes the ban will not only protect its secular traditions, but help repel rising Islamic fundamentalism – a fear dominating much of the West, post September 11.

Ironically in Muslim Turkey, fear of Islamic fundamentalism also lies behind official hostility to the headscarf. The military's opposition is particularly fierce, a legacy of its 1923 mandate from the founder of the Turkish Republic, the reformer Kemel Ataturk, to protect the new, secular state.

Although women wear headscarves for a myriad of reasons, including religious devotion, modesty and as a sign of political affiliation, the garment has come to symbolise a wider battle over what sort of state Turkey should be.

Many commentators believe that in order to justify its immense power the army needs external threats – such as Kurdish nationalism, left-wing activity and political Islam – to maintain its position.

General Hursit Tolon, commander of Turkey's Aegean Army, calls the headscarf ban an "antidote [to] fundamentalism".

Kenan Evren, Turkey's president from 1982 to 1989 and chief of staff during the 1980 military coup, claims that the rise of political Islam in Turkey – which includes the growing number of women wearing the turban – is linked to countries such as Iran which seek to export shariah, or Islamic law, to Turkey.

"There were a handful of them [in 1980]," he said of women wearing headscarves. "But today there are thousands, tens of thousands…you have to crush the sleeping snake before it bites you."

Evren's war-like metaphor is no accident. When the ruling Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced a draft law after its 2002 election victory to extend the areas women could wear the headscarf, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) founded by Ataturk publicly warned that extending the boundaries where women can wear the headscarf would take place "only through a bloody Islamic revolution".

The headscarf is banned in public buildings and state schools, and in recent years enforcement of the ban has been tightened to include religious schools. According to human rights activist and lawyer Eren Keskin, political parties have been shut down by the courts for promoting its greater acceptance. Women wearing headscarves have been refused treatment at state medical facilities, and in November 2003 a veiled defendant was ordered from a courtroom by the presiding judge, who said she "had no right to be in a public area – a courthouse".

According to Professor Ali Yasar Saribay of Uludag University's Political Sociology Department, the judge's ruling set a dangerous precedent – the issue could one day arise of whether to allow veiled women on public transport.

However, one state prosecutor, who requested anonymity, defended the ruling, arguing: "The turban is used as an uprising against the main principle of secularism and leads to religion-based hatred … and endangers public order."

Others believe that enforcing and extending the ban is opportunistic – when pro-Islamic parties like the ruling AKP win elections – and profoundly unfair toward ordinary women, like Aysegul Yilmaz, a student at Marmara University. Unlike moderate Islamist Prime Minster Recep Erdogan's daughters – who have the financial means to study abroad in the United States where they wear headscarves on campus – Yilmaz has to go bare-headed in order to attend classes.

"We had high hopes of this government but they have not moved an inch on the issue of the headscarf ban. In fact it has worsened since they came to power, and worst of all Europe has never listened to our voice," says Gulden Sonmez of Mazlum-der, an Islamist human rights group.

Ibrahim Yildirim, AKP branch deputy chairman of the conservative Fatih district in Istanbul, concedes the charge: "There are issues where our hands are tied," he says. "And yet there are more severe problems in the society, such as economic hardship, to deal with."

Many Turkish women support the headscarf ban. "I find that it can be very dangerous personally," says Ayse Oncu, a sociology professor at Sabanci University. "I fear the kinds of regimes that resemble those of Saudi Arabia, Iran, even Egypt."

Ayse Bohurler, Turkey's only headscarf-wearing television presenter and an AKP founding member, dismisses the possibility. "I do not see an Afghanistan… in Turkey, since the dynamics and culture of the society are very different," she says, noting the tolerance of the old Ottoman Empire to its minorities, including Spain's exiled Sephardic Jews.

Rights activist Sanar Yurdatapan is not convinced. "We don't want to be an Algeria or an Iran, a country where women are forced to wear head coverings," she told The Chicago Tribune. "But what is the difference between forcing someone to wear something or requiring them to take it off? The human rights are the same."

More fundamentally, Prof. Oncu says, the question of the headscarf is one of inequalities between men and women. "It is the women's dress code that is again being debated by the male world," she says.

Serpil Karacan Sellars is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

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