By Zack Kleinbart
When the Turkish Constitution was constructed in 1924, it was seen as a great step forward for human rights in the Middle East. Among the ideals of Mustafa Ataturk that defined modern Turkish society was the strict separation of religion and the state. Almost immediately after its inception in 1924, the Republic of Turkey dismantled the Ottoman Caliphate and adopted a position of neutrality in which religion could not control government affairs, and vice versa. This transition aimed to emulate Western-style social and political arrangements. Yet, many Turks and foreigners today are still frustrated with government policy regulating religious expression.
Perhaps the most notorious policy affecting Turks is the ban on wearing head scarves in public institutions. While the definition of “public institutions” is constantly changing, on the whole women who wear hijabs are forbidden to pursue certain professions in public service. For example, a woman wearing a hijab cannot practice law inside a courtroom, medicine inside of a state-run hospital, or politics on the national scale. These dictums have had a vast impact on Turkish women’s abilities to balance religious principles and career goals.
Today’s controversy, however, centers on the presence of the hijab in educational institutions. The wearing of hijabs in universities and in religious schools was banned in 1980, shortly after the Turkish military wrested power via a coup d’état. The military, which viewed itself as “the ultimate guarantor of secularism,” decided to cut off Islamic influence by limiting its presence in the educational system. By curbing Islamic studies, they believed they could mitigate the risk of religious takeover. They forbade girls and young women to don the hijab, seeking to chip away at a practice which was central to Islam and hence limit the presence of religion on a day-to-day scale. The status of the hijab thus became a measure of the separation of the state from religion.
Although enforcement of laws has been inconsistent over the past three decades, head scarf regulations have been in effect for most of that time. However, over the past few years a movement to rescind the hijab regulations has surged throughout Turkey. For example, the Women’s Rights Association Against Discrimination has arisen to combat the discrimination, which they claim has been doled out with impunity against “covered” women.
The presence of hijabs at malls, on the streets, and in other public places is becoming markedly more noticeable. Even the wife and daughters of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now wear headscarves—something that would have been unthinkable for a dignitary to do just a few years ago. The Prime Minister has signed a new ordinance that allows girls at both religious and public primary schools to wear a hijab if they so choose. In his words—which show the growing support for the religious conservatism embodied by his AK Party—the right to education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears. Erdogan and his party aim to further chip away at the hijab regulations by proposing a change to the constitution, which would allow girls to wear head scarves on university campuses. Although this has, in effect, been allowed since 2010, the prospect of having hijab provisions ensconced in the constitution has raised uproar over the future of religion in Turkey. Many secular and educational officials are trying to push back on the hijab deregulations. The major complaint from this section of society is that the “lifting of the ban could lead to increased community pressure on uncovered women to cover up.”
The concern of the secularists here raises an important point: not only does head scarf policy serve as a measure for how much religion influences daily life, but it also directly affects the freedom of women in Turkey. Both secular and religious proponents advance policy suggestions that promote certain freedoms and curtail others. Typically in the Western World, hijabs are seen as oppressive devices, designed to protect modesty but de facto denying women the same treatment and dignity that men receive. In light of Western interaction with the Muslim world over the past decade, this conception (whether misguided or not) makes some sense. We have been exposed in great detail to the horrors that extremist groups have perpetrated against women. Many of us still cling to news about Malala Yousafzi, the young girl who was shot by the Taliban for advocating for a woman’s right to education.
It should be apparent, then, as was presented earlier, cultural forces will pressure women who otherwise would not do so into wearing the hijab. We of course want to protect women from this form of oppression which limits their freedom of choice.
But the freedom of choice runs both ways. To many women, the hijab represents a lifestyle of modesty, control, and protection from wandering male eyes that makes them happy and proud of themselves. The hijab may represent a connection with Allah, with the Umma, and with a woman’s local community. For these women, banning the hijab in public places forces them to hide their religious identity in a way that prevents them from expressing themselves as they truly want to be.
When looking at Turkey, we see a country that has, for a long time, been extremely secular. During the past decades, the influence of conservative Islam has been limited, while the right to wear a hijab in public institutions has been taken away from millions of women. Despite possible misperceptions, women are treated well in Turkey in most regards. Religious oppression is of no concern. Yet, secular oppression of religiosity has adversely affected Turkish women. As a result, I must conclude that the decay of hijab regulations is, at least in the short run, a positive stride for women’s rights.
 Webster, Donald Everett (1973). The Turkey of Atatürk; Social Process in the Turkish Reformation. New York: AMS Press. p. 245