Turkey: Hot on hijabs

The prime minister wants to lift the head scarf ban. Why are feminists so angry?

Published October 3, 2007 10:25PM (EDT)

Broadsheeters, it's time for a pop quiz: In overhauling Turkey's constitution, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced he would, in part, like to lift the country's ban on the head scarf in universities. He said, "The right to higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears." The country's feminists responded to the planned constitutional changes as (circle one):

a) An advancement for women's rights
b) Regressive and patronizing

Anyone who answered "b" goes to the head of the class; anyone who answered "a," I'm sure you're a little confused. So was I.

Erdogan's move to lift the head scarf ban in universities seems monumental when you consider that 60 percent of women in Turkey wear the hijab. Just imagine how many women are discouraged, themselves or by relatives, from getting a higher education simply because it would require compromising their religious beliefs. No matter your feelings about Muslim women covering up, lifting the ban, especially in light of Erdogan's comment, appears a bold defense of women's rights.

Except Erdogan has other, lesser noted, changes planned for Turkey's constitution, including removing a clause hard won by feminists. The clause formerly affirmed equality for all; now it declares "women as a vulnerable group needing protection," reports the BBC. More than 80 women's rights groups have spoken out against the change. "If the government accepts this it will show their ideology and mindset about women and men -- that women are a group that needs to be protected," said activist Selen Lermioglu. "We need equality and ask for that, not protection."

The draft of the new constitution hasn't been released, of course, so it's hard to judge just how patronizing the new clause is. It might seem reasonable in reference to certain legal strictures that primarily affect women, like the head scarf ban. As a replacement for a general declaration of equality, though, it's troubling. The activists warn that it might validate a husband's decision to force his poor, defenseless wife to stay at home, where she would be protected from the big bad world outside.

But the proposed end to the head scarf ban -- which, interestingly enough, the women's rights activists haven't been able to come to a conclusion on -- is an entirely separate issue from the revised equality clause. I find the latter obviously troubling and the former a slam-dunk for women's rights.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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