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Headscarves and Turkish Politics

July 19, 2007

The largest ever demonstration for the rights of women in the United States took place the spring of 2004 when slightly over a million people marched in Washington, D.C. This spring women’s rights supporters in Turkey—a country with less than a quarter of the U.S. population—trumped that record in a passionate show of resolve. Over a million Turks took to the streets in Istanbul, the country’s premier city, to support women’s freedom and the nation’s constitutional guarantees for separation of mosque and state. In the following weeks, a total of one million more Turks turned out for the same purpose in several smaller Turkish cities. The majority of those marching were women. This electric activism stunned the nation’s ruling party, the AKP, referred to by many urban Turks as “Fundamentalist Light.” It forced a significant change in the party’s strategy for winning a parliamentary election on Sunday against its main rival the CHP, the secular party of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. The tale will warm the hearts of all those working for the rights of women. The spark that led to the AKP turnabout was the issue of where and when women in public roles could wear a headscarf. Turkey as a secular democracy, with 99% of its citizens Muslim, was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. He swept away the theocratic, Islamic government of the Ottoman Empire and established in its place a parliamentary system with elaborate constitutional checks and balances. Most significantly, the constitution strictly separated religion from the government, making Turkey the first Muslim country to follow a system patterned after the U.S. doctrine of separation of church and state.  In a new interpretation of what it meant to follow Islam, the constitution provided Muslims with freedom to practice their religion without the dictates of the state. This secular state was particularly liberating for women, who had been second-class citizens under the Ottomans. Polygamy was abolished. Ataturk and his colleagues improved women’s social status, giving them inheritance rights and the ability to divorce.  Within a few years women achieved the vote and were urged to run for office. These were revolutionary acts in a country that, with the exception of its westernized elites, had allowed women few rights. No specific legislation forbid the wearing of religious headgear by women—though it did so for men performing public duties—but as time passed, the public believed that the new constitution prohibited the wearing of religious symbols in any public institutions and events by either sex. And the prohibition was followed. Neither an elected official nor the wife or other female family member of a public official will wear a headscarf at any official function. And at state sponsored educational institutions, no student, professor, or administrator wears a headscarf. Since 2002, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has held onto his position through a parliamentary coalition that includes members of a party with hard line Islamic views, further to the right of his own AKP.  Erdogan has confounded his critics from the secular Ataturk party, the CHP, by filling his administration with opponents of strict secular rules while at the same time moving Turkey to adopt anti-Islamist policies in order to gain entrance into the European Union. Three years ago Erdogan pushed through a new penal code that widened women’s sexual autonomy by treating sexual crimes as violations of women’s rights. It criminalized rape in marriage and eliminated sentence reductions in honor killings. He beat down an effort by fundamentalists within his coalition to criminalize adultery.  Still the CHP constantly accuses Erdogan of moving the country away from its Ataturk roots. Turkey’s political landscape is fragmented into many parties, and the CHP and the AKP have been trying out unusual tactics to win the upcoming parliamentary election. Also at stake is the method of selecting a new president, a revered national symbol who acts as commander-in-chief and has some veto power. Parliament picks the president, a system that the CHP values as a check on Islamist leanings. But the AKP wants to make it a popularly elected post. Enter the AKP’s headscarf ploy, aimed at attracting religiously conservative voters. In a move that shocked secular Turks, Erdogan tapped his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul—once member of a fundamentalist Islam party—as AKP candidate for president. Gul’s wife has been controversial as a woman who snubbed her nose at the constitution. She once wore a headscarf while attempting to take a state administered college exam and was turned away. She complained to an EU human rights commission, but dropped the complaint once her husband took office with the AKP. But she did not stop wearing the scarf publicly, and she made it clear that she would not remove it for public functions if her husband became president. The First Lady of Turkey officially wearing a headscarf! This was too much for the secularists. The image lit the spark that ignited the nation. Tansu Uygun, a young woman from Izmir who considers herself a Kemalist, a fervent follower of Ataturk, summed up why she and her friends marched against Gul and the AKP. “The head scarf issue is a symbol of what they believe needs to be changed. What needs to be changed is their minds,” she said. “We are against Gul because we didn’t want all our leaders to be from the same party and we don’t want Gul’s wife to represent Turkey wearing a head scarf.” Since the demonstrations, Gul has withdrawn as a candidate for president, and his wife has receded to private life where she wears her headscarf with little criticism. In an attempt to cool off the country’s passions, the major parties are not putting forward any presidential candidates until after the new parliament is selected. Campaign rhetoric has turned away from the scarves to focus on Kurdish terrorists at the Turkish-Iraq border and whether Turkey should join the EU. To an American, the idea that the wearing of a headscarf could bring down a candidate for president and decide the direction of a major election may be hard to fathom. The uprising of the Turkish women and their male friends confirmed that a majority of the nation does not wish to join the Islamists. But the secular-religious debate is not over. Regardless of which party wins Sunday, the secularists of Turkey will have to remain vigilant.