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Turkey has been a secular state since it was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. He introduced the secularization of the state in the Turkish Constitution of 1924, alongside Atatürk's Reforms. These were in accordance with the Kemalist Ideology, with a strict appliance of laicite in the constitution. Atatürk saw headscarves as backward-looking and an obstacle to his campaign to secularize and modernize the new Turkish Republic. The issue of the headscarf debate has been very intense and controversial since it was banned.[1] Turkey is a secular country and over 95 per cent of its people are Muslims.[2] It has resulted in a clash between those favouring the secular principles of the state, such as the Turkish Army,[3 ] and those who are more conservative with their religious beliefs.


Banning of headscarves

With a constitutional principle of official secularism, the Turkish government has traditionally banned women who wear headscarves from working in the public sector. The ban applies to teachers, lawyers, parliamentarians and others working on state premises. The ban on headscarves in the civil service and educational and political institutions was expanded to cover non-state institutions. Female lawyers and journalists who refused to comply with the ban were expelled from public buildings such as courtrooms and universities.[4]

In late 1970s and early 1980s, the number of university students wearing headscarves increased substantially and in 1984, the first widespread application of headscarf ban came into effect at the universities, but throughout 1980's and 1990s, the ban was not uniformly enforced and many students were able to graduate. The headscarf ban in public spaces, including schools and universities (public and private), courts of law, government offices and other official institutions, is only for students, workers and public servants. Hence, mothers of pupils or visitors have no problems at all entering the primary schools, but they would not be able to work as teachers. Similarly, at the courts of law, the ban only involves judges, attorneys, lawyers and other workers. Wearing headscarves in photos on official documents like licenses, passports, and university enrollment documents is also prohibited. Universities and schools refused registering women students unless they submit ID photographs with bared hair and neck.[5]

A regulation in, 16 July 1982 specified that: the clothing and appearances of personnel working at public institutions; the rule that female civil servants' head must be uncovered.

Controversial events

  • In May 1999, the ban on headscarves in the public sphere hit the headlines when Merve Kavakçı was prevented from taking her oath in the National Assembly because she wore a headscarf. She was the newly elected-MP of Istanbul of the pro-Islamist Virtue Party, and she refused demands to leave the building. The secular opposition members protested by chanting 'out' for 30 minutes, and the then prime minister Bulent Ecevit accused her of violating the principles of secularism.[7] A state prosecutor investigated whether she might be put on trial for provoking religious hatred.[8] She received much support from Iran, by the Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and hundreds of women demonstrating in support of the deputy.[9] A few months her Turkish citizenship was removed (due to other unrelated lawful reasons).[10]
  • In October 2006, Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to allow AKP politicians whose wives wore headscarves to a ball marking Turkish independence, saying it would "compromise" and undermine the secular state founded by Atatürk.[11]
  • In March 2009, Kıymet Özgür who wore the çarşaf (chador) was attacked by CHP members when she tried to get into an election bus of mayoral candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Istanbul. It was later known she had disguised herself to test the party's new initiative.[12]
  • The CHP (Republican People's Party) is a Kemalist party, however its leader Deniz Baykal surprised supporters by allowing those who wear the çarşaf (chador) to become members of the party in late 2008. The surprising move was viewed as to attract conservative voters to the party.[13] Some people criticised Baykal's move as betraying the heritage of the historical party.[14]

Wearing of the headscarf

Turkish women in Istanbul, wearing headscarves.

In Turkey, many women wear headscarf in public particularly in rural areas, less so in urban cities, such as in Istanbul and Ankara. However, this headscarf does not necessarily cover the neck and some frontal hair may show. Also this traditional headscarf is actually a babushka style one, and is tied below the chin. The new wave of headscarves which started to appear in bigger cities as a symbol of religious politicsinvariably covers all the hair and the entire neck, all the way to the shoulders, nothing to do with the traditional way. It is important to note that this type of headscarf (so called 'modern headscarf' or 'türban') is the subject of this debate, while the traditional babushka headscarve remains widely accepted throughout the country, even by the strong supporters of headscarf ban. For example, Gulhane Military Hospital in Ankara (Gülhane Askeri Tıp Akademisi) refuses visitors wearing the 'modern' headscarf, while anyone wearing a traditional headscarf does not face any issues at all.

A study carried out by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, found that 22% or one-fourth of the women in Turkey wear the headscarf. Many who wear it believe that the headscarf is worn for their religious beliefs, and not for any type of political movement.[15][16][17] The issue is discussed and debated in almost every type of forum, artistic, commercial, cultural, economic, political, and religious. For many citizens of Turkey, women's dress has become the issue that defines whether a Muslim is modern and tolerant or fanatically religious and backwards looking.

During 2007, a research firm owned by Daily Radikal called, KONDA carried out a survey to over 40,000 people based on census data's, across the country asking their views of the headscarf, which was titled: 'Religion, Secularism and Headscarf in Daily Life.' The poll found that many people believe the ban on the headscarf is unfair to those who wear it and want to achieve an education. A majority of 78 per cent of the students said 'it should be allowed' in universities, whereas 24.5 per cent said 'it should be banned.' However with the ban in place, many students considered to take the headscarf off in order to receive an education by 63.7 per cent, with 26.1 believing it is unacceptable to take the headscarf off.[18] However, neutrality of this and many similar polls have been disputed.

Question 1 - 'Do They Cover Their Heads?'[19]

Do you (or your wife) cover your head when going out to the street? (How do you/does she cover it?)

Not covered Wears a headscarf Wears a türban Wears a chador

In total during 2007, those who cover their heads with a headscarf or the türban is 69.4 per cent, a rise of 5.2 per cent since 2003, which found 64.2 per cent cover their heads.

The research firm also asked questions based on religious views, it found that 52.8 percent said they were believers who try to follow religious practices, 34.3 percent believe in a religion but do not usually practice, while 9.7 percent follow all religious practices and 3.2 percent are agnostics,atheists or do not follow a religion. In other words, 96.2 per cent have a religion.

Ban lifted

Prime Minister Erdogan campaigned in his victorious 2007 campaign with a promise of lifting the longstanding ban on headscarves in public institutions. However, as the Turkish deputies voted in Parliament, tens of thousands protested outside in favour of the ban. [20]

On February 7, 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that many women would not seek an education if they could not wear the head scarf. The main political party, the Justice and Development Party and a key opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party claimed that it was an issue of human rights and freedoms.[21][22][23][24] The Parliament voted 403-107 (a majority of 79 per cent) in favour of the first amendment, which was inserted into the constitution stating that everyone has the right to equal treatment from state institutions. However the move resulted in opposition throughout Turkey. The country's educational board and numerous universities vowed to defy the new law. In addition, the main pro-secular, opposition party of the Republican People's Party asked the constitutional court to block the new law passed, and viewed it is a move towards an Islamic state.[25] Thousands of demonstrators supporting the ban also gathered near the Parliament against the move by the government.[26]


Lifting of ban annulled

On 5 June 2008, Turkey's Constitutional Court annulled the parliament's proposed amendment intended to lift the headscarf ban, ruling that removing the ban was against the founding principles of the constitution. The highest court's decision to uphold the headscarf ban cannot be appealed. (AP 7 June 2008) [27]

See also


  1. ^ BBC - BBC News - In Depth - Turkey: Battle of the headscarf - By Roger Hardy (Islamic affairs analyst)
  2. ^ CIA World Factbook - Turkey - People (Religion)
  3. ^ "Turkey's Mrs Gul given makeover". BBC News. 2007-08. Retrieved 2009-04-13.  
  4. ^ Turkey: Situation of women who wear headscarves, UNHCR
  6. ^ Strasbourg court's ruling upholds headscarf ban. Turkish Daily News. 2006-10-17.
  7. ^ Headscarf row in Turkey parliament BBC News. May 3, 1999.
  8. ^ Headscarf deputy stands ground BBC News. May 3, 1999.
  9. ^ Ayatollah attacks 'hypocritical' Turkey BBC News. May 14, 1999.
  10. ^ Citizenship twist in headscarf row BBC News. May 12, 1999.
  11. ^ Turkey in veil controversy. Asia News. 2006-10-30.
  12. ^ CHP members’ attack on chador-wearing woman suspicious Today's Zaman.
  13. ^ Baykal’s unyielding support for chador move greeted warmly Today's Zaman.
  14. ^ Baykal under attack Hurriyet.
  15. ^ Lamb, Christina (2007-04-23). "Head scarves to topple secular Turkey?". London.  
  16. ^ "Headscarf war threatens to split Turkey". Times Online (London). 2007-05-06.  
  17. ^ Clark-Flory, Tracy (2007-04-23). "Head scarves to topple secular Turkey?". Retrieved 2008-08-04.  
  18. ^ Turkish Daily News - Poll finds Turks oppose headscarf ban in universities
  19. ^ KONDA - religion, secularism and the veil in daily life - 08-09.09.2007
  20. ^ Jones, Dorian. "Turkey's Parliament Eases Ban on Islamic Head Scarves at Universities". VOA. Retrieved 2009-04-13.  
  21. ^ Ayman, Zehra; Knickmeyer, Ellen. Ban on Head Scarves Voted Out in Turkey: Parliament Lifts 80-Year-Old Restriction on University Attire. The Washington Post. 2008-02-10. Page A17.
  22. ^ Derakhshandeh, Mehran. Just a headscarf? Tehran Times. Mehr News Agency. 2008-02-16.
  23. ^ Jenkins, Gareth. Turkey's Constitutional Changes: Much Ado About Nothing? Eurasia Daily Monitor. The Jamestown Foundation. 2008-02-11.
  24. ^ Turkish president approves amendment lifting headscarf ban. The Times of India. 2008-02-23.
  25. ^ O'Toole, Pam (2008-02-27). "Turkish appeal against scarf law". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-04-13.  
  26. ^ Gulfnews - Turkey votes to lift headscarf ban
  27. ^ BBC - BBC News - Court annuls Turkish scarf reform


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