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Lifting Turkey's headscarf ban: freedom of choice, or Islamist Trojan horse?

Farzana Hassan [President, Muslim Canadian Congress] and Zeynep Baysal [Director, Muslim Canadian Congress]: "The recent victory of the newly elected Islamic party in secular Turkey has spawned a reversal to traditional Islamic precept and practice in the country. This contention is confirmed by the newly elected Turkish Prime Minister's move to lift the ban on headscarves in public places nearly a century after their prohibition by secular reformist Kamal Ataturk. The move is intended to allow Muslim women the right to express their religiosity in a more conservative manner if they so desire.

Most would agree that such a move is desirable in the interest of freedom of choice. However, ideally, in a climate of resurgent religious fundamentalism, the lifting of the ban must also be accompanied by appropriate safeguards for the rights of those who choose not to wear the headscarf.

There is no guarantee for example, that women who refuse the hijab will not be forced into adopting the practice simply because it is deemed a religious requirement by the orthodoxy. The danger in lifting the ban lies in the empowerment of a fundamentalist strain within Islam that marginalizes and oppresses women, isolating them in social enclaves and reducing their role in society to one of subservience and subjugation. An allowance for women to don the hijab in public will regrettably also provide leverage to the religious right to enforce compliance for the practice where it is not voluntary. Will the current Islamic government of Turkey also legislate to ensure that women are not coerced into wearing the headscarf? Interestingly, Merve Kavakci, a Turkish American barred from entering the Turkish parliament in a hijab, blatantly rejected the right of Iranian female legislators to appear in parliament without the headgear. Choices must work both ways.

Traditional Muslims often respond to such criticism by downplaying the social pressures faced by women who reject the hijab. This, however, is a misrepresentation of reality. Even women who supposedly opt for it, do so because they are rarely if ever exposed to an alternative exegesis on the issue, which does not regard the hijab as a requirement. Women's "choice" in the matter can be considered genuine only if they are exposed to other narratives on modesty which do not entail the covering of the hair.

Turkey as a modern state and last refuge for secular Islam must continue to uphold its tradition of the separation of religion and state. The current government hopes to use the hijab as an Islamist Trojan horse to eliminate secularism. Here, it is useful to remember that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. People pray, fast, give alms and some of them choose to cover their hair, which thus far never presented a problem in the country. Islamists have now introduced the headgear as a social weapon to fight secularism, turning it into a political weapon. The headgear or hijab is a political tool and a threat to Turkey's secular tradition. Currently, there is pressure for secular women to cover themselves even in large cities. The present government is also trying to eliminate the secular dress code in government offices. It has taken a slower, steadier path, careful not to rock the establishment too quickly while at the same time floating an occasional trial balloon for social reforms to advance the Islamist agenda.

Turkey must continue repel the Islamist onslaught in such matters. It must continue to serve as an example to other Muslim nations who are lagging far behind in terms of instituting democratic values, pluralism, egalitarianism, as well as freedom of conscience and religion."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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