Does freedom to veil hurt women?

Turkish women are divided over the government's vote to overturn the head scarf ban.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published February 11, 2008 7:40PM (EST)

Thousands of protesters took to the streets Saturday in Turkey as the Parliament voted to revise the Constitution to allow women in public buildings to be veiled or not. Issues of secularism, religious freedom and women's rights are stirred into this scalding-hot pot of debate -- but even those leading the feminist fight disagree about the best way to defend women's rights. Many Muslim women are lobbying for the right to attend college or work for the state while following their religious belief in modesty. For instance, there's women's rights activist and lawyer Fatma Benli, who has to send substitutes to defend her court cases, since she is banned from attending while wearing a hijab. She is one of the major players behind the push to repeal the ban and describes the head scarf as her "personality" and "wholeness."

But there are also women, and Muslim women in particular, campaigning for essentially the same reason: in defense of their personal freedom. They fear that overturning the ban will actually force them into wearing the hijab and remove their religious choice. During Saturday's parliamentary debate, M.P. Nesrin Baytok argued, "This decision will bring further pressure on women. It will ultimately bring us Hezbollah terror, Al Qaeda terror and fundamentalism." Former Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk had a more measured take: "It's been presented as a liberty to cover the head, but in practice, it is going to evolve into a ban on uncovered hair."

Ultimately, though, it's questionable how prominently women's rights figure in the debate. As Jenny B. White, a Boston University anthropologist who has studied Turkey for more than three decades, told the New York Times, "It's all about power. It's about who gets to decide what Turkey's image and emblematic lifestyle will be. Islam is the lightning rod for all the fears and concerns."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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