In Turkey’s battle of secular vs. conservative, hijab-wearing women are caught in the middle

Story by Erin Kelly // Photos by Katie Kriz

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey is a country with a population that is 99 percent Muslim. Yet the women who wear a hijab, or headscarf, still struggle for acceptance at universities.

Sedya Kinaci, a student at Istanbul University, wears her hijab at all times as a fundamental part of her Islamic practice and her personal identity. Yet some professors forbid Kinaci and other women like her from publicly displaying such an expression of their religion by demanding they remove the scarf before entering the classroom.

At Istanbul University, a student wearing a hijab studies outside. Most women who wear headscarves at the university are not required to uncover their heads, but some professors ask students to remove their scarves before entering the classroom.

“The first time I had to remove [my headscarf] for a lesson, I was angry,” Kinaci said, speaking through a translator. “I cried… At the beginning of the situation, I felt guilty, but as time passes, I got used to it.”

To emphasize Turkey as a secular state, headscarves are legally banned from public places, including government buildings and public universities. Though traditionally viewed as a sign of religious expression, an ongoing battle between secularists and fundamentalists has turned the hijab into a political symbol, representative of a push to reform Turkey into an Islamist state.

The recent victory of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP party, in the 2011 parliamentary elections, may change the legal status of the hijab. The Islamist party has publicly relaxed the headscarf ban in the past, and its leader, Tayyip Erdogan, is a pious Muslim. His wife Emine wears a hijab. Though an official lift on the ban is sure to ignite rage and opposition from secularists, it is still unclear what will happen.

Private universities are not subjected to this particular rule of the Constitution and can therefore legally allow headscarves. And though Turkey’s Higher Education Council relaxed headscarf bans at public universities in 2010, some professors make their own rules and still vigorously enforce the ban.

“Many people, and some professors are particularly against [the headscarf] because they see it as a political instrument,” said Kivanç Ulusoy, an associate professor of political science at Istanbul University. “They are not against religion, they are secularists.”

A similar ban on the niqab, or burqa, which is the more conservative Muslim veil that covers a woman’s entire face and body except for her eyes, was implemented in France in April to preserve what legislators in that country call a strict separation of church and state. Muslims across the globe have widely and loudly complained about that ban as impinging on their religious freedom.

Kassad Loyol, a Moroccan student studying in Istanbul, has followed the issue in France.

“In France, I can accept the ban because France is not a Muslim country,” Loyol said. “But Turkey is Muslim…why do I have to take [my scarf] off?”

Kivanç Ulusoy, an associate professor of political science at Istanbul University, said Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, but the Turkish government has traditionally banned headscarves from the public sphere, including government buildings and public universities.

Ulusoy said that in the past, individuals seeking the freedom to wear headscarves in public have gone to the European Court of Human Rights, an international court based in Strasbourg, France, which ultimately ruled in favor of the ban. However, once the issue became a national concern, the Justice and Development Party (known as the AK party) became more open to allowing headscarves in public and have since relaxed the ban, causing the Republic People’s Party (known as CHP) to follow suit. While there is no official documentation of this relaxation, both parties have publicly expressed their opinions.

“Now, both leftist parties have been thinking that it’s time to relax the matter,” Ulusoy said. “I think it’s a good decision, because the issue has been exaggerated so much.”

Most professors at public universities allow students to wear scarves if they choose, said Soli Özel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Bilgi University and a columnist at Haberturk newspaper.

However, a secular interpretation of the Constitution has the caused issue of wearing hijabs to become an “ideological football, or ping-pong [match],” Ozel said.

“The Islamist movement used this blatant injustice, and tamper[ed] with the freedom of education, if you will, for all it was worth,” Özel said.

Ilke Civelekoglu, an assistant professor of political science at Dogus Üniversity, an English-only institution established in 1997 on the Asian side of Istanbul, said the ban is rooted in “radical understandings of secularism,” or the separation of state and religion.

“[Secularists] think Islamists are opportunists,” Civelekoglu said. “They think that once [Islamists] are in power, they will abolish the democratic regime.”

Civelekoglu has never asked students to remove a head covering.

“[Asking a woman to remove her turban] is discrimination, it’s unacceptable,” Civelekoglu said. “Everyone has the right to an education.”

Although the Council for Higher Education issued a decree last year stating professors cannot expel students from classes for expressing their religion, negative views of hijabs in the classroom still exist.

Leynep Depirmen, a student at Istanbul University, feels compromised by the phenomenon she calls, “Islamaphobia,” or the fear of Islamic fundamentalists, and finds it troubling that hijab-wearing women are the only people affected by this ideological clash between secularists and fundamentalists. She says there is no equivalent of the hijab ban for men or others who outwardly express their religion.

“The cross is a symbol of Christianity, but people can wear a cross in public areas, and in the ministry of government,” Depirmen said, speaking through a translator. “Political or not, there is a misreading of freedom in Turkey. It should be a right for a person to wear [her hijab] in a university classroom.”

Five years ago, the university administration would kick students out of class for wearing a headscarf. Today, there are no formal consequences, but Kinaci said she still feels psychological pressure to remove her headscarf from certain professors.

For example, after taking an exam for a professor who permitted headscarves in the classroom, she was approached by another professor who observed the exam.

“She came and asked me if this was my final decision to wear [the headscarf],” Kinaci said. “She asked if there was a break or difference in my life. Her attitude made me uncomfortable.”

Buse, a 20-year-old student at Istanbul University who asked not to share her last name due to the political nature of the issue, has had to remove her head scarf in the past, but has not been required to this year.

As long as the AK Party continues to stay in power, she believes headscarf rules will remain relaxed at universities. But despite the political tension, Buse said she just cannot understand professors who ban hijabs.

“It’s the same lesson, with my headscarf, or without.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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