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Friday, October 11, 2013

Turkey Partially Lifts Decades-Old Ban On Head Scarves

Merve Kavakçi pictured at a panel discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, sponsored by the Becket Fund. (

Merve Kavakçi pictured at a panel discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, sponsored by the Becket Fund in 2005. (

On Tuesday, the Turkish government partially lifted a ban that kept women from appearing in state offices wearing Islamic head scarves.

The ban dates back to 1981, and has socially and professionally isolated Turkish women who wear the scarf.

Though the religious call the ban oppressive, secular Turks fear that lifting the ban promotes a conservative state.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Merve Kavakçi who was voted into the Turkish Parliament in 1999, wore a head scarf to her swearing in ceremony.

She was immediately dismissed from her position, banned from politics, and eventually stripped of her Turkish citizenship.




This week, Turkey lifted a ban on headscarves on women in some government offices. The ban goes back to 1981. It was part of the country's secular agenda. Now, Turkey is led by an Islamist government. We remember this summer's protest by Turks who felt Prime Minister Erdogan was eroding the secular firewall. They worry that lifting the ban even partially - women are still banned from wearing scarves in the military, law and police work - that it's further evidence of Erdogan's plan.

But the religious community calls the ban oppressive. Merve Kavakci was voted into parliament in Turkey in 1999 and wore a headscarf to her swearing-in ceremony. She was immediately dismissed from her position, banned from politics and eventually, stripped of her Turkish citizenship.

She is now Dr. Merve Kavakci, a professor at George Washington University, and joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. So professor, what was your reaction - headscarves, now largely allowed?

MERVE KAVAKCI: Well, it's a start. When I heard the news, I had tears in my eyes. Over the years, in the past three decades, the ban had a spillover effect, and from public arena it also disseminated into the private sector as well. So we had seen women denied from health care, from receiving driver's licenses.

We had seen students in persuasion rooms in Istanbul University over the past decade, where female students were taken in by professors and were - tried to be convinced to take off their headscarves - which I call, in my academic study, gas chambers for the soul.

This is ushering Turkey into a new era. It is rectifying the very convoluted take on Turkish secularism, which I dub secular fundamentalism.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more about that because you say that this is actually, in your view, Turkey becoming more democratic.

KAVAKCI: Oh indeed, indeed. Turkey, unfortunately, enjoyed this special status, and this is a long-awaited process. And 70 percent of the Turkish women do wear a headscarf. This is just a fact. And to ostracize and marginalize them, deny them from education, from economic freedom, only hurts Turkey. Now, Erdogan's government is just coming back to bringing a more citizen-friendly secularism.

YOUNG: Well, and as you know, others have a very different view of what the scarf symbolizes. We'll pick that up in a second. But as you said, you feel students are being pressured in these rooms to remove their headscarves. You called it a gas chamber for the soul because of what they were being pressured to do. Why? What does the headscarf symbolize for you?

KAVAKCI: Well, it symbolizes my commitment to God. And Islam is not exceptional when it comes to the covering of the women. Christianity and Judaism, the other two Abrahamic faiths, also command that women cover themselves. And as a committed Muslim woman, I had found myself empowered and emancipated; and I'd never thought of my covering as an impediment to my personal or professional growth. On the contrary, it just allows people to value me beyond my looks and my appearance.

YOUNG: Well, can you understand the secularists, though, who see the scarf as a symbol of an erosion of their rights; a march from the lifting of a ban - in other words, allowing women to wear headscarves in government offices - to requiring headscarves on all women?

KAVAKCI: Secular fundamentalists who defend the ban have a parochial way of looking at the world. And they think that they own Turkey, unfortunately. Turkey belongs to all of us. And Turkey is a Muslim country. That doesn't mean that all women will have to wear headscarves, but that means that everybody will be allowed to go about their lives the way they think is right for them.

Until now, the secular fundamentalists have been oppressing and abridging the rights of women. All Erdogan's government is trying to do is rectify; move the Turkish secularism from this very convoluted format into a more normalized, optimized form where both religious people and seculars, with their own will, can come together and work in public offices.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. What about people who see the scarf as demeaning to women - somehow subjugating them, hiding them?

KAVAKCI: Oh, indeed that - there is a prevalent view, and the basis of this are very Orientalist values - and when you look at the literature produced by the Westerners about Muslim women as sexual objects. I do not agree with that. I don't go by that. I have seen thousands and millions of women who find themselves empowered.

I think after all, this is a matter of choice, and this is between our God and ourselves. Then again, this does not in any way refute the argument that there is a lot of oppression against women around the world, including the Muslim world as well. And I find generally, the reason to be more cultural than religiously based.

YOUNG: Let me make sure we're clear here. Would you support the Turkish government commanding that women wear headscarves?

KAVAKCI: The Turkish government cannot do that. Why? Turkey is a secular state.

YOUNG: I guess I'm saying if the Turkish government did do it - other governments have, you know, swung from one end of the spectrum to the other. If the Turkish government did do that, would you support it?

KAVAKCI: No because the headscarf, after all, is a personal choice. It's a command of the Lord but after all, it's a personal choice to choose to abide by the commands of our Lord - or not.

YOUNG: Well, here you are now, a United States citizen. And in large parts of the country, a headscarf is nothing unusual. But to some people, it is. Do you find yourself having conversations with people, or do you find yourself - how are people reacting to your headscarf?

KAVAKCI: Well, the major reason why - myself and my family have moved to the United States of America 26 years ago was the headscarf ban. I was not permitted to continue my education as a medical school student. That was in my past life. And my parents said, well, we've got to find a better place for you guys to study.

And honestly, when we landed to Dallas, Texas, in the mid-'80s, I was in awe. I was in literal shock, in a pleasant way; that is, that nobody even had a second gaze at me at that time. And the kind of unwelcoming behavior I had faced in my own country, I did not face in the United States of America. That's why I clearly support the idea of Turkey moving away from secular fundamentalism to a separation of church and state, religion and state in the way that we understand in United States.

YOUNG: Merve, Professor Kavakci, thanks so much.

KAVAKCI: Thank you.

YOUNG: Merve Kavakci, former parliamentarian in Turkey, on that country's decision to allow headwear for women in many parts of government. She's now a professor at George Washington University, author of the book "Headscarf Politics in Turkey." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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