Head scarves first, democratic reforms ... um, maybe later

To many Turks, the decision to allow head scarves on university campuses sends an important message about the political priorities of Turkey's ruling party.

Published February 15, 2008 8:25PM (EST)

Almost a week has passed since the Turkish parliament's decision to allow women to wear head scarves in universities, and it's still causing controversy. The main questions are these: Would the amendment, as the New York Times puts it, "guarantee all citizens the right to go to college, regardless of how they dress"? (In a liberal democracy, that would seem like a no-brainer.) Or would this supposed "freedom" be a step toward a society where women are pressured to veil their heads in public, as religious Turks gain increasing political and social power?

Regardless of whether you think of the right to wear a head scarf as liberation or a door to oppression, there's another issue at hand, brought up by several recent articles: What are the real priorities of the AKP, Turkey's ruling religious conservative party? An editorial in today's Wall Street Journal raises a concern held, it reports, by secular groups, including academics who "have a deep commitment to liberal values and democracy and who supported the lifting of the headscarf ban in principle." The editorial points out that these people are concerned about how eager the AKP was to lift the ban through a constitutional amendment when there is already a new, more liberal draft of Turkey's Constitution in the works that would "end all infringements on fundamental rights" -- which presumably would also address the head scarf ban. And, as the Journal points out, there were also other "long-pending" laws in line to be changed, like Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which makes it a crime to "insult" Turkishness. But now that the head scarf amendment has been passed, the editorial asserts that "the AKP is acting as if it has run out of breath for further reform ... Instead, AKP leaders seem more interested in promoting their own idea of piety."

(I should also point out an important clarification made by the article: There is no statute in Turkey that specifically forbids women from wearing head scarves at universities; rather, there are two court cases that struck down a law that permitted the head scarf on campus. This most recent amendment would change those decisions.)

The Wall Street Journal isn't the only publication to raise the question of the AKP's intentions. Time ran a piece by a young Turkish women that addresses the same topic (she asserts that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has "seized on the chance to lift this ban with an enthusiasm that he hasn't shown for any of the many other democratic reforms Turkey needs"), and the Associated Press brings up the issue as well.

The author of the Journal piece, who teaches international relations at Bilgi University, claims that the AKP "mishandled" the issue, causing much "unnecessary tension." "Because of the government's carelessness," he writes, "students who don headscarves may remain in limbo for a while longer." Considering what a lightning rod the head scarf issue has become in Turkey, limbo doesn't sound like a very good place to be.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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