Turkey’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of two different measure that will ease the ban on wearing hijab in Universities. It voted 403-107 for providing equal treatment to all citizens from state institutions and 403-108 for providing access to everyone to higher education.
Headscarf ban has been an emotive issue in Turkey where an authoritarian secular military and judiciary is pitted against a powerful observant middle-class. The fight has been played in Turkish University campuses and courts and spilled over to the European courts too.
In October 2006 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university ban, rejecting a complaint filed by a Turkish university student. Earlier, in June 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a petition by a Turkish student who was banned in 1998 for wearing a headscarf at Istanbul University. In 2000, a court in Turkey sentenced Nuray Bezirgan to six months jail for “obstructing the education of others,” for wearing a headscarf at her college final exams, which led to disturbances. [Wikipedia]
On the face of it lifting of headscarf ban seems a no-brainer. Most western nations allow their citizens and students this liberty. While the ban was in place in Turkey, women who wanted to wear headscarves either discontinued higher education or went to western countries to study. As a matter of fact, daughters of current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan studied in USA to get around the ban. So, shouldn’t women be allowed to dress the way they want to, even if it is a religious dress, since other women have the freedom not to do so?
The issue looks simple but is it? Opponents of lifting of ban argue that it is yet another step for the Islamic leaning AKP to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. And they don’t have to go far to find examples. Neighbor Iran is a great example where women are forced to wear headscarves. Across Persian Gulf is Saudi Arabia where not only women can’t travel without a mehram (guardian) but they are not allowed to drive. 15 young girls died in 2002 in a fire when the religious police prevented them to be rescued because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress. Obviously some fears of secularists in Turkey seem to be far-fetched but it is difficult not to sympathize with them with such horrendous examples existing nearby.
Then there are subtle subtexts in this debate. What would you call headscarves? Islamic dress. Then by default the women without headscarves suddenly start adorning “un-Islamic” dress. As the number of hijabis increases in the campus, there is a definite danger of being seen these non-hijabis as deviant. I have seen it happen in the conservative Muslim campus I went to in India where wearing jeans for girls was a taboo. Then there is the whole issue of the type of hijab. What if women want to cover their face too? What if they cover their eyes? What if a professor wears it? A lot of European states are grappling with the problem unable to find a common ground.
In this blogger’s opinion, this is a complex issue that can’t be solved by constitutional amendments or judicial interventions only. Already there is a talk of challenging these amendments in courts. Turkey has resisted a free-wheeling debate on the issues for many years but it is inevitable now. Ultimately it has to be the Turkish society that will decide the direction it takes. Democracy in Turkey, even though skewed towards the military with overdose of secularism, is still seen as an example to emulate by many across the world. The onus is on the proponents of lifting of ban to allay the fears of secularists that it is a legitimate case of freedom of expression and not a step of towards turning Turkey into an Islamic state. Any attempt to dilute the secular character of Turkey will further exacerbate the Islam-West hyphenation.
Photo: Statue Of Attaturk