A history of the headscarf ban in Turkey

01 October 2012, Monday / RICHARD PERES,
This article traces both de facto and de jure prohibitions on tesettür in its various versions in the public sphere from the beginning of the 20th century. The restrictions on the Islamic headscarf begun in the 1980s are a sub-set and natural outgrowth of the previous 45 years of Turkish history and the imposition of a Turkish secularism
…Kemalism is perhaps the first movement in the world that set the alteration of the existing civilization as its primary objective
Nilüfer Göle, ‘The Forbidden Modern’
For a thousand years there was no ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf, or any other type of tesettür (the Islamic dress code for women) in the area of the world that now includes the Republic of Turkey. The reason was simple: During that time the area was inhabited
predominantly by Muslims.1 Turkey today is still overwhelmingly Muslim, but the Kemalist secular revolution begun in 1924 caused a paradigm shift and restrictions on the lives of Islamic women from then that are still felt today.
Although the “headscarf ban” is most often used to describe the series of regulations that began appearing in 1981 regarding headscarved students, this article traces both de facto and de jure prohibitions on tesettür in its various versions in the public sphere from the beginning of the 20th century. The restrictions on the Islamic headscarf begun in the 1980s are a subset and natural outgrowth of the previous 45 years of Turkish history and the imposition of a particular Turkish secularism.
1900: Rumblings of modernization
At the start of the 20th century in the geographical area encompassing modern-day Turkey almost all women wore tesettür, with the most common type in the empire’s capital İstanbul being the çarşaf (which means sheet in Arabic and Turkish) — a one-piece, one-color covering of the entire body except for the face. An optional additional covering for the face called a peçe (veil) was also worn.2 Woman in the countryside commonly donned a loose-fitting headscarf and şalvar (baggy pants). The vast majority of Anatolian women covered their hair in one form or another when they appeared in public, which was rarely. Indeed, for 400 years the Ottomans determined what many women should wear, and even under what circumstances and how they could appear in public.
However, by 1900 women had begun increasingly to participate in social life, notably in İstanbul and İzmir, and their outfits were influenced by news of women’s fashions in Paris, which local tailors would copy.3  The general trend towards modernization had begun during the Tanzimat period (1835-1876), which encouraged women to raise their own issues regarding clothing restrictions; many advocated the removal of the peçe. During the Second Constitutional Era (1908-1919) women became more active as “the issues of citizenship and equality of women in Ottoman society dominated the public agenda, regardless of the deterioration of the empire.”4  This activism was also a reflection of women’s movements in Europe and the US; particularly the drive for suffrage, which had had culminated in American women gaining the right to vote in 1920.
Women became the center of modernization polemics at this time. The extent to which women could determine their own status within the context of modernization movements revolved around three competing outlooks: Western equality, Islamic morality and Turkish tradition.5  As the debates continued, women in Turkish cities and towns increasingly emerged into public spaces, participated in education and employment, joined women’s groups, and took an interest in fashion, all of which “…damaged the symbols of women’s private realm, such as veiling, the segregation of the sexes, and so on.”6
Religious conservatives fought vehemently against the “European” liberation of women, while the government appeared torn by the competing influences of tradition and modernism. For example, one day in 1917, the İstanbul police put up posters requiring Muslim women to wear the çarşaf, before shortly rescinding the order, claiming it was “a consequence of the persuasion of a low-ranking clerk by old reactionary women, which asked all Muslim women to return to the old fashion.”7
1925 to 1950: the imposition of Kemalist doctrine
After consolidating his power and eliminating opposition, the revolutionary reforms of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, began to transform the new republic. Although ideas regarding modernizing women’s attire and limiting tesettür played no role in the War of Independence, everything changed just two years later. The de facto, accepted and promoted standard for women’s dress in the Turkish Republic dropped the çarşaf altogether and even the headscarf (başörtüsü), which some had advocated as a modern alternative. The new standard of the “modern Turkish woman” emerged as a reflection of Western and European styles, illustrated clearly for all to see as Atatürk made a point of surrounding himself with such women during every photo opportunity.
Atatürk did not formally impose restrictions on tesettür — after all, his own mother and initially his wife were in tesettür — and was inconsistent in defining what was acceptable Islamic dress for women, with the exception of the peçe, which he attacked as uncivilized.8  His reluctance to regulate women’s dress may have been because religious women were not active politically, played a subservient role in society generally, were often out of the public sphere, and were not part of Islamic organizations that could pose a threat to the authoritarian character of the new republic.
Early prohibitions on Islamic dress
The Hat Law, which was passed in 1925, outlawed the fez, worn by men, and was the first codification of dress in the new republic, linking dress with the Kemalist concept of modernity. Islam required men to be distinguished from non-Muslims, who wore hats, but the hat was imposed by Atatürk as the modern replacement for traditional headgear. Punishment was swift and brutal for those who objected, such as one İskilipli Mehmed Âtıf Hoca, executed for refusing to wear a hat.9  Similarly, the Dress Act of Dec. 3, 1934, banned the wearing of religious attire except in places of worship or during religious ceremonies. This also only affected men, such as imams, who would have to now wear a hat when they entered the public sphere.
Although Parliament did not pass laws directly affecting women at this time, other than the general laws that controlled religious expression, at the 1935 congress of the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP), the issue of banning the veil and black trousers for women (kara don) was discussed, resulting in the general secretary of the party sending a secret correspondence to municipalities throughout Turkey to ban the veil and fine those who covered their face. In numerous ways and through various penalties these orders were followed by authorities in Turkish towns. Nevertheless, prohibitions of women’s dress were approached differently during the early republic:
The main inclination in this issue was to remove the veil by through [sic] conducting propaganda among the people rather than legislative sanctions. It was also intended to make the same practices in İstanbul (Cumhuriyet, September 1, 1935). Nevertheless, there was always a cautious approach about the female dress both in making the first regulations and its aftermath. This approach differed from the attitude displayed in the hat issue and the potential reactions were prevented to some extent through dealing with this issue at the local level. The individual objections did not create significant impact. It can be seen that the change in the female dress was not completed during the administration of single party [rule].10
On the other hand, well-to-do, urban women welcomed their new freedoms and throughout the 1920s could be seen at beaches, sporting clubs, dance halls and eventually even in beauty contests. They gradually dropped the vestiges of Islamic dress and emulated the new model of the modern Turkish woman. Like Atatürk’s wife, they may have worn the çarşaf at first, then a simple headscarf, before finally ending up removing their head covering altogether.
The authoritarian imposition of secularism that repressed religious institutions, from the abolition of the caliphate to the adoption in 1926 of the Swiss Civil Law,11  is well known. It is also true that these cultural and lifestyle reforms were invasive and disliked by the masses:
By extending their secularization drive beyond the formal, institutionalized Islam, the Kemalists now touched such vital elements of popular religion as dress, amulets, soothsayers, holy sheikhs, saints’ shrines, pilgrimages and festivals [sic]. The resentment caused by these measures, and the resistance put up against them was far greater than, for instance, in the case of the abolition of the caliphate […] While the government succeeded in suppressing most expressions of popular religion, at least in the towns, this did not, of course, disappear. To a large extent, the tarikats went underground. But through the simultaneous imposition of an authoritarian and — especially during the 1940s — increasingly unpopular regime and suppression of popular Islam the Kemalists politicized Islam and turned it into a vehicle for opposition.12
One can only guess what the psychological impact for religious women was at this time for those that did not become “civilized” as Kemalism marginalized women in tesettür, turning it into an anti-modern symbol of backwardness in Turkey. Moreover, the integration of secularism with Turkish national identify had the effect of invading the private sphere of Islamic people. As noted by Nilüfer Göle in “The Forbidden Modern,” Kemalism aimed in part at the destruction of mahrem — that is, women’s private/secret space, which is an integral part of Muslim society — in the name of Western modernity. Coeducation of girls and boys, women’s professionalization and political equality, and the application of new civil rather than religious laws all had the same “civilizing” goal.13
In contrast, in the towns and cities the push towards a secular state helped create a new secular elite consisting of “bureaucrats, officers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs of larger commercial enterprises”14  — a group that would grow and dominate Turkish politics into the 21st century and become known as the “secular bloc.” This group became vested in the new reforms, which gave them a privileged edge over the pious masses, and created a secular-Islamic split in Turkey that survives to this day. In summary, outwardly religious people retreated from the public sphere at this time — but while they took a low profile, they did not disappear.
The overriding nature of Turkish secularism
The concept of secularism is embedded in the constitutions of Turkey. Since the founding of the republic the subject has not been open to debate. The caliphate was abolished in 1924 and in 1928 the provision that declared Islam the state religion was repealed. In February 1937 the concept of secularism was enshrined in the Constitution, along with republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, and reformism (the “six arrows” of the CHP). The constitutions of 1961 and 1982 reaffirmed the principle of secularism, or laicism, with layers of protection to avoid its being undermined or repealed. All of which makes secularism and its enforcement by Turkish judges perhaps the most important legal principle in Turkey, superseding all other laws:
… the principle of laicism sets out for Turkey a social dimension which is more important than its legal dimension which constitutes its infrastructure. […] The pertinence of this social dimension has been further elevated by the Turkish constitutional judge, whom while fulfilling the task of clarifying the scope of the principle has gone beyond the normative framework and has afforded the principle an existential importance for the Republic under a teleological and historical approach. Specifically the historical context has inclined the Turkish judiciary in general to formulate a strict interpretation and rigid application of the principle.15
The embedded, omnipresent character of secularism in Turkey is far more important and powerful than any party circular or parliamentary law and facilitates its widespread enforcement by those in authority. It is also a highly nebulous, subjective concept whose interpretation is not subject to case law — that is, prior court decisions — as is the case in other countries. This allows a wide range of discretion to be applied to the thousands of cases in which the concept of secularism is applied.
For religious women in Islamic dress this meant they could be denied their presence in the public sphere in innumerable ways — ranging from entering a state office building or getting a taxi, to entering the grounds of a university campus or working in an office — and by numerous authorities, such as the police. The parallel here is the way African-Americans were treated in the US by average white citizens, and those in positions of authority, particularly in the southern states. It was a hostile, subjugated environment that affected all blacks all the time, whenever they ventured out of their homes. The “ban” affecting religious Muslims, in this sense, approximated this general subjugation; in this case that of religious women by any secular people who had a say in protecting the public sphere. This is a living environment we can now only hypothesize about. Incidences in every area of the public sphere have been documented by organizations such as the Women’s Rights Organization against Discrimination (AK-DER, www.ak-der.org), but unfortunately contemporary records were not kept in the past.
The unwritten law of the patriarchy
Finally, it should be noted that the Kemalist reforms to provide freedoms for women were sponsored by men, who endorsed what is sometimes viewed as “state-sponsored feminism.” Nonetheless Turkey was then, and remains today, a highly patriarchal society — a fact that cuts across the secular-Islamic divide and severely limits opportunities for women.
Kemalism was a “progressive ideology that fostered women’s participation in education and the professions, it did not alter the patriarchal norms of morality and in fact maintained the basic cultural conservatism surrounding male/female relations, despite its radicalism in opening a space for women in the public domain.”16  In fact many students of Turkey argue that that the Kemalist reforms did not aim to emancipate women or to support them in the realization of their consciousness and their identity, but rather aimed to increase their participation in the republican patriarchal order by equipping them with the necessary skills and education to make them better wives and mothers.17  The point here is that patriarchy was one additional hurdle, most often insurmountable, for pious Muslim women to overcome in order to gain full entrance into the public sphere.
1950 to 1980: increased visibility and hostility in the public sphere
The de facto (rather than de jure) application of the nebulous concept of Kemalist secularism by the courts, law enforcement and those in authority, coupled with the fact that in the new republic the more pious women were often rural, less educated, and pursued traditional child-rearing and family roles — roles that are prescribed by conservative/religious teaching — generally had the effect of keeping Islamic women out of the public sphere in the single-party era. Consequently the level of conflicts centering on the headscarf did not warrant issuing specific restrictions and bans:
In the 1940s and 1950s the Republican elite considered the headscarf as a practice adopted by the uneducated rural woman who had neither ‘the knowledge’ nor ‘the power’ to remove it. It was accepted as a matter of education and underdevelopment […] in the states’ discourse and it was believed that the headscarf would disappear as a result of education, urbanization and development which were the objectives of Kemalist modernization project.18
However, several factors began to bring pious Muslim women into the public sphere, beginning in the 1950s, when the sudden end of one-party rule and the success of the Democratic Party (DP) also made an impact, with Prime Minister Adnan Menderes appealing to religious sentiment during election campaigns.19
By the 1960s and 1970s, industrialization and urbanization had brought millions of rural migrants to the country’s urban centers. The percentage of people who lived in cities in 1980 was almost double what it was in 1920. Rural women brought with them their traditional customs, including the headscarf, which was mostly worn loosely around the head and shoulders at that time.20
As Muslim women became more visible in the cities, despite the absence of legal bans there remained powerful prohibition of covered women entering the public sphere. Employment in the public sector, that is, working for the government, the bureaucracy and civil service, as well as public schools, was not — and is still not — an option for headscarved women.21  Today that public sector amounts to almost 3 million jobs. Generally, the environment for pious Muslim women who sought jobs or entered public spaces, especially in cities and towns, was hostile. For example, in the 1950s and ’60s, the mainstream secular press, which was dominant at the time, launched a “Struggle against the chador campaign,” which consisted of editorials and cartoons making fun of women in çarşaf, also known as the chador. The Cumhuriyet daily wrote in 1960: “The religious fanatic has retreated but his black flag still flies in the form of the chador. This cover, which has nothing to do with either religion or morals, must be removed from the pristine face of the Turkish woman.” And in 1968, Hatice Babacan — the aunt of Minister Ali Babacan — was thrown out of Ankara University’s Faculty of Theology for wearing a headscarf, the first such publicized case. She filed an arbitration case and lost.22  The press picked up on the incident and public officials condemned the act, blaming it on radicalism. One headscarved woman, Gülhan Kavakçı, mother of Merve Kavakçı (see below), did manage to graduate from İstanbul University — the first covered woman to do so — but such infringements on the public sphere were rare:
In 1962 she [Gülhan Kavakçı] entered İstanbul University, Faculty of Letters, majoring in German Philology. ‘In those days it was unthinkable that women who wore headscarves could even dream of going to a university,’ she said. There were no specific laws prohibiting headscarves, but given the subjugation of religion in support of Turkish secularism, there was no need. The Turkish military’s coup just two years earlier, in May 1960, legitimized itself partly by being a response to increasing religious activities in public spaces, which it saw as threatening its Kemalist programme.23
As Necmettin Erbakan’s Milli Görüş (National View) movement began to gain momentum in the 1970s and increasing political violence between leftist and rightist elements dominated the streets of Turkey’s cities, more formal restrictions against the headscarf were soon to come due to a “military intervention” in 1980. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 added to the fears of the Turkish military, who viewed themselves as the guardians of secularism.
Formal headscarf bans emerge in 1980
In the 1980s Turkey’s pious Muslim women began to assert their identity, in contrast to traditional headscarved women of the countryside, who remained on the periphery of the public sphere. These largely urban women started to pursue university education and employment opportunities, and responded to the years of being stigmatized with a bolder form of tessetür that included a headscarf that covered the hair and neck and was pinned tightly under the chin. The secular bloc labeled this type of tessetür as türban, differentiating it from the traditional, non-offensive headscarf “worn by grandmothers.” They viewed it not as a religious symbol but as a political provocation. However, every poll showed just the opposite; that Islamic women wear a headscarf for religious reasons, because they believe it is prescribed in the Quran.24  This is not to say that Muslims in Turkey, home to Alevis and other sects, are a uniform group in their religious beliefs or that they do not vary in terms of their interpretations of the Quran and the degree of their religiosity.
People who identify themselves as Muslim also often do not fit neatly into one category (pious) or the other (secular). Today between 60 and 70 percent of women in Turkey wear a headscarf,25  although one report suggests only about 15 percent wear the style that completely covers the hair.26  Regardless, the point here is that the secular bloc, and then the military, responded to pious Muslim women no longer willing to sit on the periphery. As noted by one academic, “In Turkey, the 1980s were marked by the rise of social categories which defined themselves through Islam; the ’90s were the time of their entry into the political and social system.”27  It is for this reason that specific headscarf bans started to appear in this period.
The military acts
On Sept. 12, 1980, under the command of Gen. Kenan Evren, the military took power for the third time since the foundation of the republic, beginning a period of de jure headscarf bans in education for most of the next 30 years. The Evren government also formed the Higher Education Board (YÖK), aimed at controlling universities and their curricula and the removal of left-leaning professors. In 1981 Evren banned headscarves worn by students by means of a National Security Council (MGK) decree. He said, “We will not let the başörtüsü into university. We are adamant about that. No one should insist on it. There is no such thing in the religion anyway.”28   This quote epitomized the beginning of a disingenuous conceptualization of the headscarf by the secular bloc and would subsequently be repeated ad nauseum by those who self-profess an uncanny insight into the minds of pious women! The decree stated, “Staff and students at the higher educational institutions must be in plain attire that is compatible with Atatürk’s reforms and principles” and the “head will be uncovered and it will not be covered inside the institution.”29  The actual implementation of the ban was left to the discretion of the universities themselves, resulting in the emergence of various ways to get around the ban on the part of the students, including transferring to a different university, wearing an obvious wig on top of the headscarf (or more simply, wearing a hat) and taking examinations without coming to school.
As the university and school headscarf ban started to be implemented, it soon generated protests across the country, especially in Ankara, the capital city. Then, in the first post-coup elections of 1983, Turgut Özal came to power as prime minister, leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP), with center, right and Islamic support, and advocated religious freedoms. With Özal’s influence, YÖK lifted the headscarf ban on condition that women wore a türban in a “modern way,” but the definition of türban was vague at best. This vagueness prevented the amendment’s adoption — in addition to which it was not found to be acceptable by religious people. Moreover some institutions, including, for example, Ankara University Medical School, refused to admit students no matter how they wore their headscarf.30  The state bureaucracy and judiciary reiterated their view that headscarved women had their own political agenda and that they were being exploited by extremists.
In December 1986, YÖK tried to stem the protests, stating, this time, that it was “mandatory for students to wear modern clothing at all times,” but left the interpretation once again up to university administrators. Of course, leaving the matter up to university administrators was simply another way of enforcing the ban, since all state universities and most private universities, which were not abundant at the time, supported it. The protests and conflicts continued. Then Parliament passed legislation allowing students to wear any attire they chose. This was met with a veto by Evren, then the president of the republic by virtue of a post-coup referendum in 1983. In response to that veto Parliament passed another bill in 1988 allowing headscarves for religious beliefs:
Modern dress and attire are required in classrooms, labs, clinics, policlinics and aisles of institutions of higher education. Hair and neck may be covered with a başörtüsü or türban due to religious beliefs.
However, in 1989 the higher courts reviewed the matter again. The Constitutional Court repealed the above all-important second sentence (File No. 1989/1, Decision No. 1989/12; Official Gazette, July 5, 1989, Issue 20216). In summary, regardless of what the Özal government tried to do during its five-year time in office, the Kemalist state (courts, bureaucracy, state institutions) was not about to lift the headscarf ban.
In 1990 Parlıament passed Law No. 3650, adding Article 17 to YÖK Law No. 2547. This article reads, “at institutions of higher education, there is no dress code so long as students do not wear outfits that are not antithetical to the laws enacted.” The opposition CHP went to the Constitutional Court to repeal Article 17. The court ruled Article 17 was in accordance with the Turkish constitution. However, this result created a short-lived solution for headscarved women, because in 1992 the Constitutional Court reinterpreted Article 17 stating that the wearing of the headscarf in the public sphere for religious reasons was in fact not allowed.
RP, FP and the Feb. 28 intervention
In 1994 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP) was elected mayor of İstanbul with the help of tens of thousands of headscarved party workers. Then in the general election on Dec. 24, 1995, the RP received 21.4 percent of the vote, ahead of all other parties, a first in Turkish history. After a series of political maneuvers, on June 28, 1996, Erbakan became Turkey’s first Islamic prime minister within a coalition with ANAP, then headed by female politician Tansu Çiller.
However, on Feb. 28, 1997, the military once again intervened by means of ultimatums issued to the government at a MGK meeting, asking it to clamp down on “reactionary activities.”31  In the public realm, national security concerns dominated the areas of counterterrorism, media, political parties, education, civil rights and liberties. Teaching the Quran to those under 12 years of age was also effectively banned. Massive demonstrations took place, protesting the headscarf ban and other promulgations by the military. The response to these demonstrations was further threats by the military to use force against Islamist groups, a key factor in Erbakan’s resignation on June 17, 1997.32
On April 18, 1999 the Virtue Party (FP), successor to the RP — closed by the Constitutional Court on Jan. 16, 1998 — ran a slate of candidates for Parliament. The first headscarved candidate to be elected, Merve Kavakçı, was unable to be sworn in to office on May 2, 1999, when the government denied her her seat in office. It was the first, and thus far the last, time a headscarved candidate was nominated by a major political party capable of gaining seats in Parliament.
With respect to public servants, AK-DER reports state that 5,000 headscarved women were laid off between 1998-2002 on the grounds that they violated the regulations on dress and attire, and some 10,000 of them were forced to resign from their positions. Headscarved women who had jobs in public organizations were interrogated on the grounds of disciplinary rules they did not follow, and removed from their positions.33
The Islam-friendly AK Party
The moderate successor to the RP and FP, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), came to power in 2002. Although the party is religiously conservative and its leaders are pious Muslims (with headscarved wives), they have run up against the secular bloc in their efforts to alleviate headscarf restrictions. In 2008 the AK Party-dominated Parliament passed an amendment to allow headscarved women to attend universities, only to see the Constitutional Court overturn it. Then, on July 30 of the same year, the Constitutional Court voted six-to-five to close the AK Party for supporting such a law, but lacked the seventh vote necessary for the decision to have the force of law. The notion that a political party could be shut down for supporting a law passed in Parliament indicated the staying power of the secular bloc in Turkey. However, in fall 2010 a memo from YÖK appeared to lift the headscarf ban at universities, including prohibitions on its being worn at university entrance exams, a practice that was still banned by many university rectors. The headscarf once again dominated the media and headscarved women entered Turkish universities in large numbers, although there remained incidences in which they were blocked by administrators or individual instructors in classrooms. Nonetheless, control of YÖK by the AK Party has successfully nullified these actions.
Headscarved women still suffering
Despite a decade in power by the Islam-friendly AK Party, headscarved women in Turkey still face headscarf bans in several areas:
University admission has finally occurred during the last two years, but without constitutional or legal guarantees; the impact of the YÖK memo could be reversed by a new ruling party or coalition.
Headscarved women are blocked from teaching jobs in high schools and universities. Thus today’s covered students who gain their doctorates will find essentially no opportunities to teach in Turkey.
Headscarved women are blocked from working for the public sector, meaning government jobs.
Headscarved lawyers cannot appear in court and are shunted by professional organizations for doctors, engineers, dentists, accountants, etc.
 A 2010 study funded by TESEV found widespread discrimination against headscarved women in employment by both religious and secular employers.34
No major political party (one capable of passing the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation) has nominated a headscarved candidate since Merve Kavakçı in 1999. The Islamic-friendly AK Party refrained from such nominations in 2011 (when it won a third term in power) even though if listed high on the candidate lists their being included would certainly result in their election. Headscarved AK Party members have not been appointed to administrative positions in party organizations around the country.
In summary, “embedded secularism” in Turkey continues to support restrictions of women who choose to cover their heads according to their religious beliefs. Even after 10 years of rule by an Islamic-friendly party, the continuation of de facto and de jure bans point to the depth and consistency of a major human rights issue. In fact, a headscarved woman whom I know was recently told by an AK Party official that she would have to wear a wig if she wanted to assume an administrative position in the party organization, one for which she is qualified, but that is a “front-office, visible” position. Perhaps even the AK Party is not empathetic enough to bring about a new definition of a secular and pluralistic society in Turkey, or does not want to risk its position of power. Regardless, the situation is not likely to be resolved without substantive changes to the structure of Turkish society and its constitution, which will likely require covered women to take a more active role in mobilizing opposition to an endemic practice.

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