The European Court of Human Rights decision to uphold the Turkish government’s headscarf ban will deny thousands of women access to higher education and a professional life in Turkey, said Human Rights Watch today.
Last Thursday, the court’s Grand Chamber rejected the appeal of Leyla Şahin, who had hoped to qualify as a medical doctor in Turkey, but was banned from medical school after she refused to remove her headscarf. She was ultimately forced to study abroad.
“Turkey’s ban on headscarves clearly infringes the right to religious practice and expression,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Court has let down thousands of women who will be prevented from studying in Turkey’s universities.”
The Turkish government has sporadically enforced a ban on headscarves for students and teachers in universities since the 1960s. However, in 1997, implementation of the ban intensified when the Turkish Army compelled the government to implement the ban without exception. Since that time, women who wear the headscarf are barred from state employment, taking up elected posts in parliament, appearing as lawyers in court, working as teachers in private schools and universities and, in some cases, even from venturing onto state property. Thousands of women are now barred from higher education in Turkey each year because of the headscarf ban.
The court’s decision darkens the prospect for scores of other victims of the ban who have petitioned the European Court of Human Rights. For thousands of Turkish women currently banned from universities and public employment, the ruling ends any hope that they might restart their education and careers.
The current government of the religiously oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) would like to lift the ban on headscarves, but does not dare to defy the military on such a sensitive issue. If the court had upheld Şahin’s complaint, the Turkish government might have been able to ease restrictions. Instead, for the foreseeable future, Turkish women like Şahin will either have to go abroad to study and practice or forego professional life in Turkey.
At the heart of the decision was the Grand Chamber’s opinion that the ban was reasonable if it protected the “rights and freedoms of others,” and its ready acceptance of the Turkish government’s claim that women who do not wear the scarf might be accused of being irreligious. The Grand Chamber also ruled that the ban was justified because it protected the secular status of universities in a country where there were “extremist political movements.”
“The court readily accepted the Turkish government’s arguments, but gave little weight to the severe restrictions of rights for Şahin and women like her,” said Cartner.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Françoise Tulkens of Belgium questioned the general and abstract appeal to secularism, and doubted that the ban was proportionate. She noted that the government had produced no concrete examples of women who wear headscarves trying to intimidate women who do not wear the headscarf. Human Rights Watch is not aware of such a pattern of intimidation, and has noted in past reports that women who wear the headscarf have been able to study side-by-side with women who do not cover their heads without disturbance on Turkish campuses for 10 years. Furthermore, while there are certainly extremist political movements in Turkey, the campaign for the right to wear a headscarf has been entirely nonviolent for more than a quarter of a century.
Tulkens sharply dismissed the assumption that the headscarf intrinsically conflicts with principles of equality. She also observed that women in Turkey have no choice about whether or not to study in a “secular university.” All universities, private and state alike, are subject to the government ban. Women have to choose whether to remove their headscarf in violation of their religious beliefs and sense of personal modesty, or resign themselves to a life without higher education or career prospects.
“The ECtHR has been a powerful force in extending basic freedoms in Turkey, but it missed an important opportunity in this case to stand firmly behind principles of freedom of religion, expression, and non-discrimination,” said Cartner. “Thankfully, Judge Tulkens’ analysis presents the beginning of an argument for greater tolerance that we hope will prevail in the long term.”