Turkey's perpetual 'headscarf' controversy

Published 22.11.2019 19:41
Updated 23.11.2019 00:11

The "lifestyle" row in Turkey seems without end. With children bowing to busts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic's founder, on his death's anniversary, assaults against women with headscarves on the streets, a conservative Instagram influencer throwing a flamboyant party for her baby, and an opposition deputy quoting the late prime minister Bülent Ecevit's remarks about a female parliamentarian wearing the religious headscarf – the age-old debate on religious conservatives and politics is back in vogue.

The "lifestyle" debate cannot seem to end, as it rests firmly on the guardianship regime's ultra-secularist practices, which reflected the single-party regime's notion of the "desirable citizen" – a product of that culture of imposition. That the Kemalists see the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) 17-year tenure as a period of conservative rule that undermined secularism inflames the controversy time and again. Some people just can't stomach the peaceful coexistence of diverse lifestyles and the resulting process of social normalization – which Turkey experienced in recent years. In truth, they simply wish to keep the controversy alive, as their very survival depends on its perpetuation.

Obviously, the "lifestyle" debate is all about women. Women find themselves at the heart of a multidimensional controversy that plays out without their involvement. Like all Muslims, they experience the challenges of earthly life. When it comes to performing good deeds and avoiding evil, Muslim women are in the exact same situation as Muslim men. Yet the unique challenge they face is related to the religious headscarf's designation as a battleground of the heavily symbolic power struggle between ultra-secularists and Islamists. That designation infringes on the right of women with headscarves to experience public life like everyone else. How they participate in public life, and to what extent, is the subject of incessant questions. Those women experience scrutiny as "agents of a political project" or "virtuous symbols of religiosity." Their "political representation," like their "luxury" consumption habits, are frequently at odds with social norms.

The most recent example of social pressure took place in the Turkish Parliament, where a Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy, Engin Özkoç, recited former prime minister Bülent Ecevit's offensive statements about a female parliamentarian to a sitting deputy wearing the headscarf. This attempt to teach a religious female politician "her place" raised questions about the main opposition party's recent outreach to conservative voters.

In such situations, Turkey's conservatives find themselves asking the following questions: Why can't the country get over the headscarf, even though the AK Party government took steps to allow them to serve in all public institutions, including the military and the justice system? If the CHP were to come to power, would it deprive religious people of their rights? Did the main opposition party really change, or is it borrowing a page from the Gülenist book of deception? Could civilian politicians or the guardianship regime carry out another purge against religious people?

That the CHP parliamentarian's go-to response was to fall back on "teaching conservatives their place" with a 20-year-old quote demonstrates that the movement could never stomach being in opposition. CHP's self-identification as the only legitimate holder of political power and, by extension, commitment to establish "norms" have been the driving force behind polarization during the AK Party years.

Let us recall that the same people in 2007 warned about Turkey heading to "darkness" because a politician, whose wife wore the religious headscarf, was running for president. The following year, Turkey's constitutional court nearly outlawed the AK Party for abolishing a ban on the headscarf. Had just one more judge ruled that the movement had become "the nexus of anti-secular activities," history would have been radically different. There are many other such cases.

The AK Party's rule carved out room for the headscarf in the public domain. Seeing that campaigning against the headscarf was no way to win elections, CHP revised its policy in recent years. Whether the main opposition party has actually changed is a question that it will answer in the coming years. After all, the inability of some ultra-secularists to conceal their anger suggests that they can only tolerate women with headscarves because they are still in opposition. There is no concrete evidence to support the CHP's claim that it has truly changed. Indeed, all signs point to the contrary – Turkey's secularists continue to impose an embargo on the headscarf. Women with headscarves find little, if any, room in nongovernmental organizations, private companies and universities under secularist control. Major corporations in Turkey either do not employ any women with headscarves or allow them to work at the very bottom of the corporate hierarchy.

Until CHP completely abandons the single-party regime's top-down modernization project, it would be foolish to think that the "headscarf" debate in Turkey can end and give way to genuine normalization.

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