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The Turkish Case

Some interesting lessons on an issue whose complexity should be duly recognized by the human rights movement can be gleaned from the less publicized example of Turkey.38 In that country, women wearing the headscarf are not permitted to register as university students, enter university campuses, or enter examination rooms. Those observed wearing the headscarf in class are warned about their behavior, and if they persist in wearing it are suspended or expelled.

In recent interviews, many women told Human Rights Watch they were heartbroken that their hopes for a career in medicine, science, teaching, or the arts were permanently blighted. Women have also been detained, humiliated, ill-treated, and prosecuted. The authorities say that the scarf is a flag of aggressive political Islam that threatens the secular order of Turkey and the rights and freedoms of other Turkish women, but most women affected by the ban say that they wear the scarf as an expression of Islamic religious piety.

Modern Turkey’s legislation on the subject of clothing began with a 1923 decree on dress, signed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the republic. Those who see themselves as Atatürk’s most faithful heirs seek to bar women from education because of their choice of dress, but Atatürk himself took a relaxed position on the headscarf. He was frequently photographed on public business with his first wife, who covered her head. He wrote: “The religious covering of women will not cause difficulty.... This simple style [of headcovering] is not in conflict with the morals and manners of our society.”

Students denied access to education have been unable to secure a remedy through the Turkish courts. And the June 29, 2004 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Leyla Sahin v. Turkey has only made matters worse. The court’s judgment reflects the same fears expressed by those who support the headscarf ban: that recognizing the rights of devout Muslims threatens the rights of others. But Turkish society is moving ahead of this zero-sum philosophy of despair—in the day-to-day tolerance of difference that you can see on the street, and in the solidarity shown when civil society organizations with a largely Muslim membership stand up for non-Muslim rights (as Mazlum-Der has done) and organizations with a largely secular membership stand up for the right to wear the headscarf (as the Turkish Human Rights Association has done).

Various political groupings have exploited the headscarf issue in order to curry support from their respective devout or secular constituencies. Pınar İlkkaracan, coordinator of a local non-governmental organization working on women’s rights, told Human Rights Watch in 2003 that this is an issue open to easy political manipulation: “We as Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) are against any attempt that aims at imposing restrictions and regulations on women’s dress code. Therefore, WWHR has made a number of statements condemning the ban on the [headscarf] at the universities, which violates the human right of female students for education. But this issue is being exploited by the political parties on both sides of the question…. Men in power should not use women’s bodies for a battlefield—and that is what is happening in many parts of the globe.”

It is not a condition of fundamental rights that those who enjoy them must hold tolerant and liberal opinions, but it is a fact that much of the resistance to the headscarf is inspired by a fear of what might happen if the tables were turned, and an outright Islamist regime were making the rules. A fairly widespread suspicion among Turkey’s secular population is that the religious parties have a master plan of eliminating secularism by “salami tactics,” and that the headscarf is the first slice. They fear that tolerance shown on this issue will be followed by a ramping up of demands, and they quote the proverb, “If you give the devil the little finger, he will soon take the whole hand.” The alarm felt by those who see the headscarf as the thin end of a dangerous wedge has been aggravated by a catalogue of attacks by Islamic extremists directed specifically at people who have criticized the wearing of the headscarf at universities.

Human rights groups working on the headscarf issue must address these threats.  Human Rights Watch did so in 2004 by calling on Turkish authorities to acknowledge the long and sorry history of state failure to protect women from gender-based violence and discrimination, and commit itself to programs to remedy continuing shortcomings in that protection. We also recommended that any new legislation on higher education include provisions to offer reassurance to those who feel their rights could be put at risk by a change of policy with regard to the headscarf. Such provisions might be legislative or regulatory safeguards for the rights of women who choose not to wear the headscarf, as well as strong public endorsements of women’s freedom to dress according to their own free choice. But the most important gesture the government could make would be actively to seek out civil society groups representing women and gather their views through the broadest possible consultation before changing the headscarf law.

A convincing consultation would give opponents of the headscarf an opportunity to express their strong reservations and to suggest safeguards or undertakings that the government could make to protect society against the erosion of civil liberties—and in particular, women’s civil liberties—that the opponents fear would result from a lifting of the headscarf ban. By listening to the concerns of women from all sides of the argument, the government may be able to break away from the pessimistic zero-sum game and move toward a genuine pluralism that allows women to make their own free choice whether to wear the headscarf or not.

[38] Much of the discussion of the case of Turkey that follows is a slightly revised version of text written by Jonathan Sugden, Human Rights Watch Turkey researcher. It first appeared in “Memorandum to the Turkish Government with Regard to Academic Freedom in Higher Education, and Access to Higher Education for Women who Wear the Headscarf,” Human Rights Watch, June 29, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005