Rights advocates complain that hopes for headscarved women to run in elections and work in state offices have been shelved for many years, and they will possibly remain on the shelf for some time to come despite earlier pledges by the government to take urgent steps to address the two issues.
Rights groups are heartbroken because politicians are currently discussing a large number of issues, including a proposal to reduce the age requirement for deputy eligibility, but a de facto ban on the headscarf remains untouched. The groups say the government should include headscarved women in its ongoing efforts to root out discrimination in society.
“Headscarved women are not allowed to work in state offices and get elected [to Parliament or local administrations]. These are issues that need urgent solutions. Yet, the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government is delaying addressing the issues. This is unacceptable,” complained Neslihan Akbulut, a sociologist who fights against the headscarf ban.
In Turkey, state offices do not hire headscarved women. 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. They are not elected to Parliament, either. A scarf ban was imposed for many years on university campuses, and it ended only in 2010.
When it was swept to power first in 2002, the 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 left 10 years behind as the ruling power, but the long-standing discrimination against the country’s women who wear the headscarf remains in place.
According to Akbulut, covered women no longer want to wait for a solution. “If there is a demand from the society, it is either met [by the government] or the government explains its failure to meet the demand. Asking people to wait for a solution is not acceptable,” she added.
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.
Akbulut also said allowing students to attend university courses wearing their headscarves is not a satisfactory step because it remains a mystery for them what they will do when they graduate. “Covered students are told that they are free to receive an education, but they will not work [in state offices] or run in elections with their headscarves. This is very unfair,” she added.
Turkey’s ban on headscarves dates back to the 1980s but was significantly tightened after Feb. 28, 1997, when the military ousted a government they deemed too religious. When the headscarf ban was imposed in universities for the first time in 1997, some headscarved students refused to take off their head coverings and dropped out, some women took off their headscarves and continued to attend school, while a small group of covered women were able to go abroad to continue their studies. Every one of these women suffered in some way for their choice.
Üstün Bol, secretary-general of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), stated that the headscarf ban is de facto as there is no law or legal regulation that prohibits the use of headscarves for female deputies or civil servants at state offices. “However, women are not allowed [arbitrarily] to wear their headscarves when working at state offices or aspire to become deputies,” he said, and added that the headscarf ban could be lifted with a statement to be added to the new constitution.
“Freedom to [wear] the headscarf could be enabled in the new constitution. We do not expect or approve of the new constitution to state that women are free to work or run in elections with their headscarves on. But the new document [constitution] may say individuals are free to put on whatever they like and the right to do so cannot be restricted. Whoever violates the constitution should be punished. I think the headscarf ban may be lifted in this way,” Bol added.
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.
After the 1980 coup d’état, a regulation clearly defined the permissible clothing and appearances of staff working in state offices, including the stipulation that the hair of civil servants must be uncovered. Starting then, headscarved women were denied the right to be employed by the state. The ban was expanded in scope to universities in 1997. Politicians have since failed to reach a compromise on how to end the headscarf ban.
Many say the ban on the use of the headscarf has a negative impact on women’s participation in such fields as education, work, health and the political and public spheres.