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Defining Limits on Religious Expression in Public Institutions: The Turkish Crisis over Headscarves

Filed under: International Law
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 399  February 1, 1999

A Ban on Headscarves and Beards

On June 10, 1998, Turkish police and Islamist students scuffled at Istanbul University after authorities refused to allow eleven women wearing Muslim headscarves to take final exams. The students attempted to force their way into the examination hall past police who were helping college authorities enforce a long-standing ban on Islamist attire in places of education, government ministries, and other public institutions. Istanbul University, like nearly all educational institutions in Turkey, receives public funding. Similar scuffles had occurred the previous day when police forcibly removed headscarves from some girls’ heads, the pro-Islamist newspaper Zaman said. The paper printed photographs of what it said were female students who fainted in distress after their headscarves had been torn off.

In September 1998, as registration for the fall semester was underway, Istanbul University authorities issued regulations reiterating that no student would be admitted to class without a valid student photo identity card. But no official photograph would be taken unless the student’s face was completely uncovered. Both headscarves for women and Islamic-style beards for men were forbidden. The Associated Press reported, on September 14, that a Turkish Airlines plane headed from Ankara to Istanbul was hijacked to Trabzon, where the hijacker released all aboard and surrendered. He told police that he had taken this dramatic action to protest the university ban on Islamic-style head coverings!

These incidents were only the latest manifestations in a recurrent battle and increasingly sharp confrontation over public displays of Islamic symbols that poses a dilemma for the political leaders of Turkey, a country of some 65 million inhabitants, 98 percent of whom are Muslims. Although more than 75 percent of Turkey’s electorate has continued to support one of the dozen secular parties, these are deeply divided not only by ideological and policy differences but by bitter personal rivalries among their leaders. The result has been a series of unstable and short-lived coalition governments. Increasing public disappointment with establishment politicians who have failed to solve the country’s serious economic and social problems has led to growing popular support for charismatic and effective representatives of the pro-Islamic Virtue Party, successor to the Welfare Party, which was banned in January 1998. Most notable among the more than 200 pro-Islamist mayors and other officials, elected and appointed, who are under legal attack as part of an army-backed campaign against Islamic fundamentalism is Istanbul’s embattled Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was sentenced to ten months in prison in June 1998 for a speech which the court ruled had illegally encouraged Islamic militancy. If not reversed on appeal, the sentence will result in banning Erdogan from political life.

The headscarf issue and the fate of the popular mayor were linked in a demonstration in Istanbul by some 1,000 Islamists on November 6, 1998, timed to mark the anniversary of the creation by the military, following their 1980 coup, of the highly secularist and conservative Higher Education Board (YOK in Turkish), which has called for vigorous implementation of the secular dress code and other restrictions on what they deemed disruptive or subversive activities on campus. Consequently, left-wing students have joined the Islamists in their fierce opposition to YOK. The Islamist students began their march outside the university, chanting “Break the hand that touches the headscarf” and “God is the Greatest,” and then when the police chased them away they marched to City Hall to protest the sentencing of Mayor Erdogan.

Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the Motherland Party and head of a three-party secular government at the time, was subjected to conflicting pressures. On the one hand, he was being pressed to take more vigorous action by the determinedly secularist military leaders, who see themselves as the guardians of the Westernizing reforms instituted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. On the other, Yilmaz was confronted by an increasingly assertive younger generation of women who are redefining their traditional role in society by combining a desire for modern higher education with a return to what they define as true Islamic values.

More than seven decades have passed since Mustafa Kemal abolished the Caliphate, disestablished Islam, banned the fez, strongly discouraged the veil, advocated European attire, introduced Western legal codes, changed the Turkish script from Arabic to a modified Latin alphabet, and proclaimed “laicism” (secularism) as one of the cardinal principles of the modern Turkish Republic. But today the issue of the proper relationship of religion and state has once again become an issue of intense debate.

The “Turban Movement”

The new style of often colorful headscarves worn by the younger generation of Islamist university women has been given the name turban in modern Turkish, using the French meaning of the word as a fashion of headdress and as a symbol of “women’s religious politicization and empowerment,” according to Turkish sociologist Nilufer Gole. Even though the term, which is of Turkish and Persian origin, referred initially to the headdress of Muslim men, labeling the female Muslim students’ movement of veiling as the “turban movement” differentiates it from the headcovering of Muslim men and women in the past. Contrary to the traditional practice of Islamic veiling, or the Islamic headscarf, which conveys such ideas as “return to traditions,” “return to fundamentalism” and “subservience of women,” the label “turban” reflects the new and controversial phenomenon of female Islamist intellectuals who insist on participating in the Islamist movement and seek to shape its interaction with modern society. The result is a hybrid and evolving phenomenon involving contradictions and incongruities.

Because she tried to understand this complex new reality rather than take sides in a polemical debate, Professor Gole notes that when the Turkish edition of her book on The Forbidden Modern, analyzing the contemporary reinterpretation of Islamic veiling, first came out, she was attacked both by traditional Islamists, who argue that “Islam is essentially different from the West” – and morally superior to it, and the Turkish secularists, who contend that “Westernization is a condition of women’s liberation.” The reason that this has become such an emotional and polarizing issue in Turkey and other countries with Muslim populations, such as Egypt and France, is that the current veiling of women is not a smooth, gradual continuous process growing out of tradition. On the contrary, it is the outcome of a new interpretation of Islamic religion by the recently urbanized and educated social groups who have broken away from traditional popular interpretations and practices. They have politicized Islam as an assertion of their collective identity in protest against contemporary Western society that is viewed as materialistic and agnostic, if not militantly atheistic.

In Turkey the new political significance of “veiling” was sharply underlined by the “headscarf dispute,” which erupted in 1984. The Kemalist secularists viewed this new phenomenon at the high schools and universities as a threat, in contrast to the use of the traditional headscarf by lower-middle-class women living on the fringes of modern city life, which had gone almost unnoticed, and was dismissed as a residual practice of traditionalism. But when in the post 1983-period, after the military had permitted the resumption of normal multi-party politics, university women began to adopt an Islamist style of dress, the secularists became alarmed, contending that the impressionable young university women were cynically being manipulated by the rising fundamentalist political movement.

The secularist-Islamist battle has waxed and waned over the years. It heated up again in January 1998 when orders were given to begin to strictly enforce the decades-old ban on headscarves in Turkish universities, schools, courts, and state offices. But, as American correspondent Philip G. Smucker reported from Istanbul in March 1998, “the effort has backfired, handing Islamic groups a powerful symbol of state repression and bringing thousands of students – including many moderate Muslims – into the streets in protest.”

The strict enforcement of the ban on head-scarves was criticized not only by Iran and other Islamic countries, but by newspapers and human rights groups in the United States and other Western countries. The Iranians portrayed the Turkish authorities not simply as secularists but as atheists who had betrayed Islam, while the human rights groups argued that this was a matter of individual religious expression that should not be subjected to regulation by the university authorities. In early March, as 3,000 religious and non-religious students held hands in solidarity outside the university, Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz seemed to capitulate and announced that “girls will not be forced to cover or uncover their heads.”

The Military: Defenders of the Secular State

But the Turkish military quickly made it clear to him that such a hands-off approach was not tolerable. For them the insistence of university women to cover their heads or male students to grow long beards were not simply issues of individual preference, but rather part of a concerted and increasingly powerful political effort by militant Islamists to turn the clock back, to cancel the Kemalist reforms and transform Turkey into an Islamic state, governed by the Shari’a, on the model of Iran, Sudan, or the Afghanistan of the Taliban. At the monthly meeting of the National Security Council, in which the chiefs of the armed services play a dominant role, the generals told Yilmaz and the other senior civilian leaders that the fate of the nation depended on waging a vigorous campaign against militant Islam, and presented him with a detailed list of steps he must take. The NSC insisted that these measures were aimed only at those who would misuse religion, and should not trouble the “genuinely faithful.”

A Question of Women’s Rights?

This view is challenged by some of the young women involved in the demonstrations at Istanbul University. One of these is Feyza Cicek, a fifth year medical student and a Quranic scholar. Even at the risk of suspension from the university, Cicek and other young, educated, middle- and upper-class Turkish women remain determined to cover their heads, which they increasingly view as an act of self-assertion and female empowerment. “We believe our religion gives the most extraordinary rights to women if read properly and from the source,” the 23-year-old Ms. Cicek told Mr. Smucker of U.S. News & World Report. Asserting their right to study and reinterpret basic Islamic teachings for themselves marks a revolutionary change from the traditionally passive role of women in traditional Islamic society.

This parallels in some respect the development within the Jewish community of such institutions for advanced Jewish studies for women, such as Drisha in New York, and the gradual and reluctant opening of Talmud studies to women in some modern Orthodox Israeli religious institutions. While the Conservative movement has in recent years also admitted women to the rabbinic program, the American Orthodox institutions have not yet done so. In Israel, after winning various court challenges, qualified Jewish woman lawyers have begun to be trained as advocates for women in divorce and other family matters in the religious courts, and women have been appointed to the community-based religious councils. In Turkey, as in Israel and the United States, this trend of greater assertiveness by religious women has been made possible by the development of modern day schools which combine religious studies with secular studies on a high level. The recently opened new Jewish day school in Istanbul also follows this model in hopes of attracting the children of affluent members of the community, who might otherwise send their children to elite non-Jewish schools in the city.

For many of the young Turkish women protesting outside the university, headscarves and other forms of traditionally modest attire are no longer signs of male subjugation of women. They are redefining both Islam and feminism in their struggle, which has included sit-ins and hunger strikes as well as demonstrations. Instead of viewing veils and headscarves as symbols of subservience to a male dominated traditional society, many Islamic feminists view the scarf or veil as a guard against the intruding eyes of men and as a sign that their first allegiance is to God – not to their husbands or fathers. Consequently, sociologist Gole found in her interviews with these women, their aim was not simply fundamentalism, but a redefinition of womanhood. The scarf that totally hides the hair and the long raincoat-type gown have become the uniforms of the young women championing the “new Islam.” While some of the pious older women in Turkey have appeared in public in black garments that cover their heads, veil their faces and reach down to their shoes, the younger Islamic university students have favored brightly colored scarves.

Before it was outlawed, the Welfare Party, reportedly with the help of donations from wealthy Saudi Arabians and supporters in other Muslim countries and among the two million Turkish workers in Germany, had allegedly paid for the costs of the fashionable scarves and conservatively modest dresses of the female students. In a twist of irony, some of the scarves were reportedly purchased from the Vacco House of Fashion, the country’s largest and most chic apparel manufacturer, which is owned by a prominent Sephardi Jewish family that fled to the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. “A scarf is a fashion,” says Jeff Hakko, heir to the scarf dynasty. “If people want to wear it on their head, it is ludicrous to ban it.”

The secular, military-dominated establishment, however, sees the scarves as a tool of fundamentalists bent on undermining the constitutionally secular state. They are not so worried about the affluent and well educated Islamic feminists at the university as they are in the reactionary example they are setting for the masses. Some former Welfare Party officials believe that the government crackdown on headscarves has swung votes in their favor – and to the successor pro-Islamist Virtue Party. The popular backlash, they say, is helping them to mobilize poor women from the countryside and city slums. According to Islamist activists, once timid housewives are now imitating the students. “We are trying to get Muslim women to use their rights – their universal rights and human rights,” said Necdet Gokcinar, an Istanbul party chief.

The assertively observant young university women have sometimes clashed with their more secular parents, paralleling the tensions in American Jewish families between young men and women who have adopted an Orthodox religiously observant way of life, while their parents maintain a non-observant life style. Feyza Cicek’s father, an associate professor of surgery at the medical school she attends, says that his own rediscovery of his faith in 1990 influenced his daughter’s religiosity. But he does not insist she cover her head. For him it is more important that she continue her education. After one of their difficult discussions, he suggested that she could cover her head and get an education by buying a wig. She rejected her father’s compromise. “It would be ridiculous. I’d still be the same person with the same ideas.”

Some women in Islamic strongholds are reportedly buying wigs to solve the problem and avoid stiff fines for wearing scarves. While the Virtue Party supported a planned march in mid-June by students from Istanbul University to Ankara to present a petition to President Suleyman Demirel protesting enforcement of the Dress Code, another prominent Islamist community leader opposed making an issue of the ban. Fethullah Gulen, who has established a large network of schools that combine Islamic studies with modern secular and technical education in Turkey, Western Europe, and the Turkic Republics of Central Asia, stated that he thought that the threat of reactionaryism was being exaggerated, adding that “reactionaryism existed in all eras, including the era of the Prophet.” Nevertheless, he advised that “when our young girls are forced [to take off their headscarves in the universities in line with the Dress Code] they must make their choice in favor of continuing with their education. Headscarves are only a detail.” Indeed, there is considerable evidence that headscarves and veiling preceded the introduction of Islam and were originally symbols of wealth and status among Greek and other women of antiquity. Moreover, even in Islamic societies, such as rural areas of Anatolia where women did much of the farm labor, they usually did not wear veils or long gowns that would interfere with efficient work in the fields.

A Question of Human Rights?

The latest controversy has produced some interesting coalitions. The religious young women have been joined by secular leftist young women and men who regard the latest rules as violations of basic human rights and freedom of choice in religious matters. Moreover, in response to secularist efforts to also bar beards, they point out that not only pious Islamist men (and some Orthodox Jews) wear beards, but so do poets, hippies, and other secular men! In practice, the ban on beards is not being enforced in classes of modern art and drama, since those beards are regarded as artistic rather than Islamic. Under the Dress Code, women are permitted to wear headscarves during officially-sanctioned Quran study classes.

Defenders of the Turkish Dress Code argue that the serious political challenges to secularism in Turkey today make invalid any analogies to the situation in the United States, where the principle of separation of church and state is deeply rooted and enshrined in the constitution. Although there may be a vigorous current debate over such issues as restricting a woman’s right to an abortion or allowing a prayer to be said at the start of the school day in public schools, there is no powerful political movement in the United States to abolish the current secular legal system and replace it either by Catholic canon law or a Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim equivalent.

A formal written complaint challenging the legality of the ban on headscarves was brought in November 1997 by members of the outlawed Welfare Party to Minister of State Sami Turk, who heads the Human Rights Coordination Supreme Council. The Council decided to undertake an intensive investigation that would include examin-ing articles of the constitution that were related to the complaint. At its meeting on May 8, 1998, the Council announced its decision that the ban on wearing headscarves in government offices and universities did not violate basic human rights and freedoms, because the scarves were symbols of “political ideology.” Turk explained the Council’s reasoning as follows:

The regulations pertaining to headscarves, if evaluated according to the Constitution, are part of the constitutional principle of secularism which warrants the objectivity of the state in religious issues. In this context, a ban on headscarves, which are used as a symbol of political ideology, does not go against the Constitution.

The right to receive an education is a basic right which cannot be banned, but everyone has to obey the regulations of the educational institutions. The problem of headscarves we face nowadays, especially in the universities, is not a problem of personal freedom but is a symbol of political ideology.

Countering the Islamic Welfare Party

What has aroused the deep concern of the military leaders, as well as the staunch secularists among the civilian population, was the growing success of the pro-Islamic Refah [Welfare or Prosperity] Party of Professor Necmettin Erbakan. As a result of Turkey’s fragmented, multi-party system, Erbakan’s party narrowly came in first – with only 21 percent of the vote – in the December 1995 parliamentary elections. Because of the bitter personal rivalries among the other parties, which ended a short-lived secular coalition, Erbakan managed to be elected prime minister, on July 8, 1996, in a coalition with the center-right True Path Party. This was the first time in the 73-year history of the modern, secular Turkish Republic that a person who had so openly challenged the traditional pro-Western orientation of the country had come to power.

The Erbakan coalition barely survived a year and he was forced to resign in June 1997 as a result of behind-the-scenes pressure from the military after he balked at implementing educational and other reforms mandated by the National Security Council to severely limit the future scope of Islamist-sponsored schools and the rapidly increasing infiltration of their graduates into the cadres of the civil service. Erbakan had placed his supporters not only in the various ministries he controlled in Ankara, including education, interior and police, but also into the governorships and other provincial appointments he was authorized to make. While all able-bodied Turkish young men are drafted into the army, entry into the career officer corps is much more selective. The military strenuously resisted Erbakan’s calls to open their ranks to graduates of the Islamic schools.

The Growth of Religious Education

The issue of enforcing the ban on headscarves in Turkish schools is thus only one of the symbolic issues that have led to clashes between secularists and Islamists in the public space. An even more fundamental issue is to what kinds of schools Turkish parents may send their children.

Following the 1980 coup, the generals believed that the liberal constitution of 1961 had created a permissive youth culture totally ignorant of religion, which made them susceptible to Communist and other radical ideas. They decided to pass laws which would create a “religious culture” to replace the one which had “poisoned the minds of our youth.” The general ignorance of Islam, the absence of religion in the home, and the failure of parents to teach religious values to their children were held to be a result of the inroads that secularism and modernism had made in Turkish society, at least in the major urban centers.

Precisely because children learned little about Islam at home, the NSC decided that the state would have to teach them in the schools; Islam would be a required subject in the schools, like history, geography, and mathematics. The generals and their advisors saw Islam as a factor of unity which, if manipulated properly, could overcome, or at least paper over many divisions in Turkey, not least of all the Turkish-Kurdish ethnic divide.

They did not foresee this trend as being reactionary or fundamentalist. They claimed they were restoring religious freedom and giving the people what they wanted. The constant expansion of the religious establishment under the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which reported to the prime minister, became a source of education and jobs for the provincial lower classes, and patronage for local politicians.

The staff of the Directorate of Religious Affairs had increased from 50,765 in 1979 to 84,712 in 1989. It has grown even more rapidly in the past decade. Along with the Imam-Hatip schools to train Islamic clergy, there has been a great expansion in the lower-grade Quranic schools where the children were taught to read and write as well as the basics of Islam. Before the 1980 coup there were 2,610 such schools; by 1989 the number had grown to 4,715. The number of students in attendance had risen from 68,486 to 155,403 during the same period. (The number of people going on the pilgrimage to Mecca had also risen from 10,805 in 1979 to 92,006 (40,057 females) in 1988.)

In its cover story on “Turkey on the Brink,” Time International on January 12, 1998, reported that the number of Imam-Hatip schools had grown from seven in 1951 to nearly 600 today, and that there were currently 1.5 million alumni of the religious high schools. The Turkish Probe reported on February 22, 1998, that Minister of Education Hikmet Ulugbay, who had pressed for strict enforcement of the ban on headscarves when he took office in July 1997, had announced that he would close unnecessary Imam-Hatip schools, since some 50,000 students graduated each year, while only about 2,300 new imams were required annually.

After the Yilmaz government lost a vote of no confidence in November 1998, six weeks of poli-tical jockeying finally resulted in parliamentary approval on January 17, 1999, of a new caretaker government under former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, leader of the secularist Democratic Left party. In an apparent move to court pro-Islamic and other conservative voters in the forthcoming April elections, Tansu Ciller conditioned support of her True Path party for the new government on the removal of Ulugbay from the Education Ministry. (He was appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs.) Ecevit pledged that his government would “decisively continue” with the secular educational reforms of the previous eighteen months requiring “eight-year uninterrupted and compulsory elementary education.” Meanwhile, on January 8, 1999, the army stepped up its own public education efforts when the General Staff announced the creation of a new Press Information Center and issued a 14-page pamphlet that proclaimed: “A new War of National Liberation must be launched with determination against Islamic activism that threatens the secular republic.”

As the continuing demonstrations against efforts to enforce the ban on headscarves and beards show, there is substantial public opposition within Turkish society against arbitrary restrictions on personal religious practices in public institutions. The demonstrations by young female university students in Istanbul’s streets also revealed that they were engaged in two battles: to make room in modern Turkey for Islam, and to make room in modern Islam for feminism. For the military, the political leaders, and the country’s educators, the ongoing dilemma is how to educate the younger generation with a respect for their Islamic heritage while at the same time imbuing them with a firm commitment to the Kemalist principles of a modern, progressive society in a secular Republic.