There is no law that prohibits the use of headscarves by female deputies or civil servants. Rights groups define the de-facto ban as a “human rights violation” and agree that the ban should be lifted through legal amendments.
Today’s Zaman spoke to some civil society groups and rights advocates about the controversial ban on International Women’s Day.
According to Burçin Esin Koç, chairwoman of the Women’s Rights Association Against Discrimination (AK-DER), there was no law or legal regulation to serve as the basis or grounds for the ban when it was first introduced. “However, over time, regulations were adopted to ban headscarf-wearing women from working at state offices, being elected to Parliament and even studying at university. The regulations were enforced as if they were laws,” she stated.
Turkey’s ban on headscarves dates back to the 1980s. After the 1980 coup d’état, a regulation clearly defined the permissible clothing and appearance of staff working in state offices, including the stipulation that the hair of civil servants must be uncovered. Women who wear a headscarf were then denied the right to be employed by the state.
The ban was significantly tightened after Feb. 28, 1997, when the military ousted a government they deemed too religious. Currently, state offices do not hire women who wear a headscarf. Covered women are also denied employment in most private companies despite the lack of a law that prohibits the use of the headscarf in private businesses. Nor are they elected to Parliament. A ban on headscarves imposed for many years on university campuses was only removed in 2010.
Politicians have since failed to reach a compromise on how to end the headscarf ban.
When it was first swept into power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) pledged to its voters that it would lift the ban on the use of the headscarf. The party is now in its third consecutive term in government, having had 10 years as the ruling power, but the long-standing discrimination against the country’s women who wear a headscarf remains in place.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who is also the chairman of the AK Party, told journalists in late February that his party has plans to allow headscarf-wearing women to be employed by state offices and be eligible to be elected to Parliament and local administrations. “There is a place for everything. A sacred birth is always painful. Since we came to the government 10 years ago, some bans that remained from the Feb. 28 period have been lifted. [Women who wear a headscarf] have finished their degrees. But there were problems in finding employment. Those will also slowly be ironed out. They have started to work in private companies,” Erdo?an said.
Erdo?an also said the headscarf ban was not written in the Constitution, it is only mentioned in a dress code directive for public employees. To ensure headscarf freedom for public employees, the prime minister does not think a constitutional amendment will be necessary. “It can be done without coming to that,” he added. He also said currently there are no real obstacles standing in the way of a covered woman serving as a mayor or a deputy.
However, AK-DER’s Koç believes that a constitutional change is required to ensure full freedom for scarf-wearing women. “Some say there is no need to amend the Constitution to lift the headscarf ban. I do not share the same opinion. The regulations should be abolished. The best method to lift the headscarf ban is to change the Constitution,” she stated.
A parliamentary commission is currently drafting a new constitution to replace the existing one that is often criticized for not granting broad freedom to individuals. The commission has three members from each of the four political parties in parliament. However, the members have not agreed on a clause to be added to the new constitution that would lift the ban on the headscarf.
Freedom for all professions
According to Berrin Sönmez, chairwoman of the Ba?kent Kad?n Platformu Derne?i (The Capital Women’s Platform Association), the use of the headscarf should be unrestricted in all professions. “We see that various circles support the lifting of the ban on the headscarf; however, some often add a “but” and say the headscarf should not be permitted for some professions. For them, a headscarf-wearing woman should not become a judge, a teacher or a doctor. They claim that headscarf-wearing women in those professions cannot act impartially and that they may discriminate against certain people with whom they do not share the same world view. This is so awkward,” Sönmez stated.
Sönmez said her association defends the right to wear a headscarf for civil servants of all professions. To do this, the regulation defining clothing for civil servants should be abolished.
Sönmez also thinks that all sorts of discrimination, not just the headscarf ban, should be eliminated because discrimination stalls Turkey’s development. “Human rights should be strengthened through laws. A human rights committee was established previously, but it does not work efficiently. In addition, a committee to monitor and prevent discrimination was set up, but it has not started working. The committee should be made up of rights advocates and academics, not civil servants. If this is the case, the committee will work more efficiently,” she added.
In late February, the Civil Servants’ Trade Union (Memur-Sen) collected more than 11 million signatures from across the country as part of a campaign to abolish the headscarf ban for civil servants. The campaign was titled “10 million Signatures for Freedom.” The signatures were later presented to the prime minister.
In 2008, the AK Party attempted to lift the headscarf ban, a move that was cited as evidence when a closure case was filed against the party on the grounds that it had become a focal point of “anti-secular activity.” The party barely escaped closure and then avoided dealing with the matter — mainly due to a lack of political compromise to end the ban.
The country’s ultra-secular circles oppose the free use of the headscarf out of concern that the religious garment would erode Turkey’s secular order.
Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozda? said there is not an article in the Constitution or law that bans the use of the headscarf. “There are some applications [regulations] put into practice through administrative decisions. These are neither acceptable nor right. They are not compatible with the principle of equality, the requirements of the law, democracy or human rights,” he told reporters.
Bozda? also said he expects the headscarf ban for civil servants and deputies to be lifted in time. “I believe that Turkey will normalize in this sense, too,” he added.