Fatma Caught Between Secularism and Liberalization

What the re-elected Turkish government should do about its headscarf ban

Fatma Benli is a Turkish lawyer with twelve years experience who specializes in international law and defending women. But she is still reliant on her parents for financial support. Her modest salary is almost completely consumed by payroll for a team of proxy lawyers she has to hire to represent her clients in court. Even though she does all of the casework, she cannot enter any Turkish courthouse with her head covered.

In the shadows of Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), winning a third consecutive election this week, Fatma’s story is a stark reminder of the continued tensions between secularism and liberalization in the land of the star and crescent.

The Republic of Turkey’s ban on headscarves, rooted in a tradition of securlarism, prohibits women with their heads covered from entering public buildings, universities, and military institutions, including government hospitals. They are also barred from working in any public sector job, or serving in public office.

The AKP has worked to try and reverse this law in Turkey over the past decade, not out of opposition to the value of a secular state, but in the belief that a more liberalized state and economy that embraced free religious practice would yield a better society. The effort nearly destroyed their government twice and, although they survived a tense election in 2007 and judicial challenge to their existence in 2008, the ban on headscarves has remained in place. Since then, despite the Islamic leanings of the AKP, its leaders have chosen to favor other reform goals in recent years.

Women who cover their heads are not the minority in Turkey. While walking through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, you can see a great number of women wearing shawls and hijabs in varying forms of modesty. Studies estimate nearly 65 percent of Turkish women wear a headscarf. That is a large section of the population barred from public buildings, universities, and government jobs.

When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, its founders instituted the ban on headscarves as a rejection of the conservative Islamic ideas that a woman’s place was in the home, and she should not have access to education or a job outside of the home. The ban was supposed to end discrimination against women, and promote more women entering universities and joining the workforce.

However, as Turkey has evolved, the ban instead stands in the way of full democracy taking root in the country. Studies have shown that the unintended consequences of the headscarf ban actually cause more segregation and force many women to remain at home. Turkey has the lowest female participation in the workforce of any country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the OECD, the percentage of women in the workforce in 2009 was 23.4 percent, and the percentage gap between men and women was over 40 percentage points, the highest in the OECD. And the World Economic Forum ranks Turkey as 131 out of 134 countries for Female Economic Participation and Opportunity.

The headscarf ban also has consequences for women in universities. Turkey ranks 83 out of 169 for male/female ratio in education in the latest Human Development Indicators report by the United Nations. This ranking places Turkey behind every other Middle Eastern and North African country except Yemen.

Tired of having to choose between religious devotion and education, girls have increasingly been challenging the law by showing up to class at public universities with their heads covered. They have been further emboldened by a promise from AKP leaders to defend any student brought up on charges for violating the law.

But still, thousands of Turkish girls go abroad each year to universities in Europe, North America, or even the Middle East, where they have the freedom to wear their headscarves. Many of these girls stay abroad, because they will not be able to return to Turkey and find work as a doctor, or a lawyer, or many other specialized positions. Prime Minister Erdoğan is able to send his daughters to Illinois State University to study, but not every Turkish girl has such opportunities.

But the headscarf ban doesn’t just affect women in the public sector; it has spillover effects on the private sector as well. A study by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) found public perception of headscarved women had been negatively effected by the ban. Private employers were able to discriminate against these headscarved women when hiring, determining wages and promotion, and layoff policies.

Secularists fear any move by the AKP to end the headscarf ban is an indication of a sinister plot to impose Sharia in Turkey. “We will never be dragged back to the Dark Ages!” they cry at rallies. And a graduate student at THK Flight School in Ankara recently told us, “They (the AKP) want to make every woman cover herself.”

But others counter this narrative, with a covered student at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul telling us, “They (secularists) think that when I cover my head, I close my mind. They don’t think that a covered woman can be intelligent or even know how to read. They think I am here to spread my religion and force my views on other girls.”

A poll by TESEV in 2006 found 72 percent of covered women wore a headscarf “because it is commanded by Islam.” For these women, the headscarf gives them freedom to participate in public life, but with the ban in place, they are barred from doing so. Simply put, the headscarf ban has harmed those the government meant it to help.

The AKP certainly has not given up on its goal of overturning the headscarf ban in Turkey. But it should ensure the matter doesn’t fade into the background of the agenda for its new government. Secularism that rejects individual rights is not the foundation for a stable democracy or a just society. Just ask Fatma.

Stephanie Brewster is a senior at The King’s College, New York City who recently participated in an international conference on Turkish-U.S. Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Anthony Randazzo is director of economic research at Reason Foundation and coodinator of a new venture between Reason and Turkish think-tank Ankara Opinion and Research Center (ADAM).