Turkey: What Now in the Veil War?

It sounds so simple. Young women who choose to wear a headscarf, as some 60 percent do, cannot attend Turkish universities wearing this covering. The vast majority of Turks favor ending the restriction, and the recently re-elected AK Parti government—acting together with the nationalist opposition party, MHP—easily has the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution. This week's parliamentary vote is just the beginning, however. Turkey's entrenched secularist minority is digging its heels in.

The 100,000 who attended an anti-headscarf rally in Ankara last Saturday sounds like an impressive number, but Turkey is a country of large rallies. The same estimators said 500,000 attended a similar anti-AK Parti protest last April, yet AK won the election comfortably. The real fight is elsewhere.

The current attempt to lift the headscarf ban—a regulation initially put in place by the Higher Education Council—is not the first. Prime Minister Turgut Ozal tried during the 1980's but ran into resistance from President Kenan Evren and the courts. Finally, the Constitutional Court ruled in 1989 that permitting the headscarf on campus was a "breach of the principle of secularism" and therefore contrary to Article 2 of the Constitution. This states that Turkey is a "secular" republic—though that term is nowhere defined. As Article 4 forbids any amendment to Article 2, say the secularists, the ban may not be lifted.

A 1998 end run via the European Court of Human Rights failed when, according to delighted secularist spin, the court endorsed the ban. What the court actually said, however, was that since the ban "pursued the legitimate aims of protecting the rights and freedoms of others" it did not per se contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. Declining to second-guess the local authorities on the ban's necessity, the court refused to strike it down—a very qualified endorsement.

The present AK Parti/MHP plan is to amend Articles 10 and 42 of the constitution to establish a right of all students to higher education that may not be abridged "because of their apparel." Being constitutional amendments, it is difficult for the Constitutional Court to rule them unconstitutional. On the other hand, if they contravene the unamendable Article 2, as the Court's 1989 logic says they must, then maybe they can be struck down. A further wrinkle is that Article 4 says amendment of Article 2 "may not be proposed," and the chief prosecutor of Turkey's top administrative court has threatened to bring a closure case against the governing AK Parti.

What now? There are a few ways to avoid confrontation. First, the Higher Education Council could annul the headscarf regulation—a move favored by its new chairman. Apparently, however, a majority of the council opposes this. Alternatively, the Constitutional Court could ignore the AK/MHP amendments. It cannot do so, however, if secular opposition party CHP, which bitterly opposes lifting the ban, insists on a ruling.
The judges could, of course, reverse the 1989 precedent, but with one exception this is the court that precipitated last year's election through a truly rotten judicial decision about the quorum required to elect a president. They might reverse if the military quietly told them to avoid a confrontation, but then again they might not. Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit says everyone "knows where the military stands," which is against reform. Maybe, however, they are against confrontation, too.

What renders the problem potentially insoluble—unless an overwhelming majority will tolerate the frustration of its clearly expressed will—is the unamendable clauses in the constitution (there are two others), plus the court's breathtakingly broad interpretation of them. Imposed in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, they are a continuation of military rule by other means. Certainly, a 1983 plebiscite ratified the constitution, but was it a real choice? And anyway, does democracy permit one generation to make decisions binding on its children? In fact, a new, more liberal constitution is in the works, a possible face-saving solution.

What the minority seek to preserve is the modus vivendi of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, who encouraged women to take an active part in the life of the young republic, and the elite willingly ditched their headscarves in conformity with 1920s modernity. Conservative women, who had no wish to participate anyway, were allowed to remain covered. Everyone accepted the deal. That changed in the late 1970s, when the daughters of Turkey's increasingly prosperous conservative hinterland sought education and careers. Many, however, refused to swap their headscarves for participation. What the secular establishment saw was the nose of the proverbial Islamist camel poking under the tent flap. Let it remain and the whole beast would soon be inside—and all women would be obliged to cover themselves. And that could be just the start. The result: the headscarf was banned on campus in 1982.

The secularists are half right: there is a camel. It is not Islamist, however; it is female. The vanguard of covered women do not merely want a university education. In time they will demand the repeal of regulations that preclude them from careers such as law and politics by banning headscarves from public buildings. Smart secularists would use the probationary period when headscarves are only on campus to promote antidiscrimination laws protecting a woman's right to choose her clothing, as we would probably do in America. They even have a potential ally in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He asserts that wearing a headscarf is a "woman's choice," a liberal position and perfectly respectable theologically. Secularists might also recognize that educated, successful, pious Muslim women are the best defense against real Islamists, a group of dyed-in-the-wool misogynists if ever there was one.

The odd thing is that the headscarf's most strident opponents are secular women. An American might suppose they would support their covered sisters' demand for a full place in society. The young, however, may be getting there. It is increasingly common in Turkey to see mixed groups of young women, some covered, some not, doing what young women do everywhere: shopping. All those who wish Turkey well must hope that such easy camaraderie is the future. But when?

Join the Discussion