The headscarf and Islam in Turkish society

Covered women at a demonstration in Taksim in June following Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla 
I have an audio story out on SETimes examining the ongoing debate over the ban on wearing headscarves at universities in Turkey.
Supporters of the ban argue that lifting it would be the thin end of the wedge in the ‘Islamization’ of public life. Opponents point out that thousands of young women are being denied the opportunity of education just because they have decided to stick to their religious principles.
Now that the Constitutional Court has been defanged following the referendum result in September, it’s highly likely that the headscarf ban in university will soon be a thing of the past, which will make it only a matter of time before covered women will also be allowed to work in public sector jobs.
Women will have greater access to education and greater work opportunities, both of which are obviously welcome developments.
But I think that the headscarf, an easy touchstone issue, often obscures a more important question over the role of Islam in Turkish society, and the degree to which it generates social pressure towards conformity to ‘Islamic’ values.
Professor Binnaz Toprak of Bogaziçi University last year released a study examining this issue, which you can read here. It is also interesting to read the criticism of this study on the blog Changing Turkey in a Changing World.
The study and response illustrate the underlying problems with the way this question is addressed in Turkey. The people opposing the social influence of Islam can generally be pigeonholed as Kemalists and so discredited by those who see the religious influence as wholly benign.
However I don’t believe it’s now enough to merely contrast the past (considerable) sins of the Kemalists with the progress in terms of democracy, social freedoms, and minority rights made under the AK Party government.
More debate needs to take place over the kind of society Turkey is becoming and how personal lifestyle choices and social freedoms will be safeguarded. Unfortunately there is no common ground in Turkish society on which such a debate could be founded, and little freedom of manoeuvre for those who would do so.


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