Candidates (new prosecutors and judges who are on the shortlist) wait in excitement for their new appointment posts in this archive photo from 2016.

Specter of a Culture War Over Headscarf Haunts Turkey Again

The secular obsession with the hijab as an anathema to the constitutional principle of laicism rekindles an arcane debate around identity politics and culture wars in Turkey.

A former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said those words at a televised debate program on Halk TV last week. His remarks rekindled an old but “recently settled” matter of the dress code in the public service. After all, the existence of hijabi women in positions of power was only a recent phenomenon, something that only became possible following a century-long socio-political struggle over the definition of laicism — the constitutional building block of Turkey’s modern political system — and whether hijab (presumably as a religious symbol in the eyes of the seculars) violates that fundamental secular principle.

The country soon devolved into tit-for-tat recriminations between the government and the secular political opposition, throwing the headscarf back to the heart of the national debate above the pressing bread-and-butter issues amid a punishing pandemic.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly capitalized on the debate that serves as a source of distraction from more compelling issues that concern people’s wallets and health. He voiced sharp criticism of Saglar on Friday.

“This person no longer lives in this age; he is far behind. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the fascist mindset of the CHP mentality today, as it was in the past. The fascist mindset is still alive. When you ask them, they talk about freedom of belief. What kind of freedom of belief is this?” (President Erdogan)

The former minister’s televised remarks even generated fissures in the secular quarters of the political spectrum as the CHP felt compelled to distance itself from him. CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu unsparingly criticized Saglar for his discriminative discourse against hijabi women over their outlook.

“In which age do we live?” Kilicdaroglu asked, expressing his disbelief over the resurgence of a matter that many supposedly believe belongs to a bygone era.

“Whether a person wears a headscarf or not, it is her choice. My duty is to respect her choice. I never accept such discrimination and I do not find it right,” he told media members when asked to comment on Saglar on Thursday.

What matters most, the CHP leader emphasized, is that whether the judge acts according to his/her conscience and the rule of law. The personal dress style, he mused, should not count as the marker of good or bad judgeship.

The barrage of criticism on social media, even from his party fellows, prompted Saglar to carefully reword his initial remarks. The more he tried to fine-tune his script by manufacturing a distinction between ‘turban’ (traditional Anatolian headwear used by rural women) and ‘basortusu’ (headscarf or hijab preferred by urbanized, educated women), the more the reaction grew and the more he undercut his own argument. At the heart of criticism directed toward Saglar lies the question of who decides over such a distinction seemingly drawn arbitrarily. And his insistence that the latter version of the headscarf constitutes the essence of the problem — the violation of secularism — because it is a religious symbol ideologically and consciously espoused by women only reflects his own fixed ideological conviction.

A lawmaker from the nationalist IYI (Good) Party did not mask his skepticism over Saglar’s motivation. He soberingly noted that such remarks have only solidified the AKP’s hold on power over the past 18 years.

Erdogan: CHP Enlists Hijabi Women As Stage Models

Apart from the headscarf itself, who wears it has also become a vexing matter in the latest back and forth barbs traded between President Erdogan’s party and the CHP. Erdogan charged CHP leader Kilicdaroglu with being insincere after accusing him of enlisting a few “mannequins” for window-dressing. What he meant was that the hijabi CHP officials were nothing but some stage models to dupe the public as part of CHP’s “self-proclaimed” diversity policies and public relations strategy to expand its social reach. His castigating depiction of hijabi CHP officials reinvigorated a strong backlash from feminists, the CHP base, and other parties.

“The depiction of headscarf women as mannequins [showcase models] is the reflection of Erdogan’s subconscious. I demand him to apologize to all women wearing a headscarf,” the CHP leader said.

CHP official Sevgi Kilic is seen (to the left of) CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, C, at a press conference in Istanbul in this photo.

Sevgi Kilic, who was the target of Erdogan’s vilification, chimed in a message on her Twitter account. “I strongly condemn the insult of AK Party Chairman against us women by calling me a showcase model,” she wrote.

The Legacy of Kemalist Persecution

Saglar’s disparaging remarks against hijabi women in the judiciary or other departments of public service has reignited the old debate that came to characterize Turkey’s culture wars and identity politics for nearly a century. According to the unflinching stance of many Kemalists, the hijab is a religious symbol that stands in stark contrast with the secular character of the public service and political representation. But this broad interpretation of the secular identity of the state solely through the lens of dress code, or hijab, suffers reductionism that seriously hampers the prospect of a reasoned debate about the ideal nature of the political system, and the individual access to public service without any restriction for any social group.

To reach the point where Turkey is now, many heads rolled down and many prices have been paid. The Kemalists’ thinly-concealed dream of the unmaking of all the progress in terms of the expanded share of political power (with broader segments of society) runs counter against the spirits of time. It is also a nonstarter for a comprehensive overhaul of a party that suffers a state of stasis that perpetually limits its political appeal among the masses.

The truth is that there is a long, undeniable history of Kemalist persecution of the hijabi women.

“Let’s start with the fact, to over-simplify, that Mustafa Kemal’s revolution and establishment of the Turkish Republic took place in a Muslim country in which religion and the state were fused together, resulting in the dismantling of the head of Islam as a political power,” Virginia-based writer Richard Peres told me in an interview for this piece.

Peres reminds us that the hijabi women immensely suffered long before President Erdogan’s ascent in politics. During his sojourn in Turkey, the American writer personally observed the secular crackdown on headscarfed women. The famous case of Merve Kavakci, a lawmaker from the conservative Felicity (Fazilet) Party who was banished from Parliament during the oath ceremony in 1999, still haunts the memory of generations of pious women.

And that day became the central focus of Peres’ book, The Day Turkey Stood Still (Ithaca) which documents the tragedy of Merve Kavakci and offers a glimpse into the predicament of Turkey’s democratic politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Even a jailed Erdogan in the ’90s was not supportive of Merve in 1999 entering the parliament, which illustrates the volatility of this issue to the secular bloc and Kemalists. Despite the gradual liberation of headscarfed women under AKP rule under Erdogan, obviously these hardcore Kemalist views remain in Turkey. Discrimination, bias and persecution of covered women is of course anti-democratic and therefore Merve won her case in the International Court of Human Rights. (Richard Peres)

The Kavakci’s unceremonious banishment from the parliament in front of the entire nation on TV set the stage for the perpetuation of the headscarf issue as the driving theme of political conflict surrounding secularism. When Constitutional Court ruled to shut down Felicity Party for posing an existential threat against Turkey’s secular system, it cited Kavakci’s attempt to enter and take her oath in Parliament while wearing a headscarf as one of the key determinant factors for its verdict. The Kavakci episode was the continuation of the Feb. 28 regime, which came to define the late 1990s after, in the words of then-General Cevik Bir, a post-modern military intervention that ousted Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s government without a direct military takeover of the country’s administration. The biggest victim of military interference was the pious segments of society, and especially hijabi girls whose access to higher education (and public service) had been severely inhibited. It took more than two decades for the entire removal of the last vestiges of the ban for working in the public service.

What motivated Peres to write the book, he told me in an emailed statement, was the fact that “in Turkey, Islam is not just a minority issue but one affecting a majority.” He gives credit to Erdogan, no matter what his recent dismal record, for correcting a historical wrong by restoring the rights of covered women.

Yet, as Saglar’s remarks indicate, the Kemalist view of the headscarf issue appears barely changed.

Of course, Turkey is a big country and hardcore Kemalists take a different position, but that position flies in the face of human rights and democracy. Saglar should be admonished. He has a problem with a covered judge the way racist Americans in the past might have had a problem with a black judge or the way Trump disparaged a judge regarding Trump University stating that the judge was anti-Trump because he was Hispanic.

But the bigotry, he notes after offering a sobering analogy between Turkey and the U.S., is bound to remain in place. As more than 70 million U.S. voters paid no heed to Trump’s abiding bigotry when they rooted for his re-election, “Turkey will not similarly eradicate Saglar’s views.”

When Erdogan excoriated the CHP on Friday, he painted a party that resembles the days of the 1940s and 1950s when modern Turkey’s first political party had poor fidelity to democratic norms and liberties. That image of the CHP remains fixed in the collective imagination of pious quarters of the social spectrum as the embodiment of anti-religious persecution. As IYI Party lawmaker and countless other observers of Turkish politics attest, Saglar’s ill-conceived foray into a sensitive subject only serves to doom CHP’s outreach to conservatives and reinforce the faltering fortunes of the ruling AKP over its incompetent handling of the economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Headscarf and Turkey’s Real Democracy Issues

The latest bout of political bickering over the place of the headscarf in politics, in this respect, serves as a distraction from the public’s urgent needs as ordinary citizens began to feel the pinch of a teetering economy. But the economic peril is only one piece of Turkey’s larger conundrum.

Peres thinks that the latest debate does no good for Turkey as more pressing matters of democracy are slipped out of the public grasp and attention.

“It is not a “point of departure for a healthy and reasoned debate about the current state of Turkey’s democracy,” in my opinion, because it is clearly anti-democratic and the more relevant issues of democracy in Turkey today have nothing to do with wearing the hijab.”

The government’s throttling of free speech, the mass imprisonment of political opponents, the ravaging cost of post-2016 purge, the arbitrary confiscation of property of people who appear on the receiving end of the government’s persecution, the ever-shrinking free space of opposition media, the repressive crackdown on women and children are among the major deficits that characterize Turkey’s recent socio-political context. Against this backdrop, the resurgence of a topic that has no bearing on the immediate problems of the country appall many people.

When the last week’s headscarf dispute erupted, former Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay displaced Saglar’s exclusive concentration on headscarf while evaluating the credentials of a judge.

“It is not about a matter whether a judge or a public official covered her head or not,” he retorted.

The matter is, the former minister mused, whether someone espouses a state of a free mind, openness, have a conscience free of any subjugation or ideological conviction, universal sense of compassion, and more important of all a clear understanding of justice. According to him, such credentials define an ideal judge who is entrusted with delivering make-or-break decisions that would forever upend someone’s life.

The headscarf has no positive or negative meaning in and for itself. This is so when someone sees that it is not a defining feature of the credentials sought by institutions in various sectors of public service. This is also so given the fact that hijabi women’s promotion and empowerment in positions of power itself did not automatically resolve Turkey’s many problems other than removing the vestiges of a prohibitive mindset regarding the discrimination against pious women.

This brings us back to the rise of Turkey’s righteous victims. How yesterday’s victims went through a metamorphosis and ended up being oppressors today serves as another cautionary tale for Turkey.

While Erdogan’s party laments the haunting specter of headscarf ban from the past, they easily forget the fact that the biggest victims of today’s still ongoing oppression in Turkey are people who indeed wear a headscarf. Nearly 17,000 women are behind bars simply over the fact that they have different social affiliations than Erdogan’s female followers. And thousands of hijabi women recently went through the most indignant treatment in police custody, being exposed to strip-search and sexual abuses on some occasions, during this same government, which includes covered women in ministerial positions.

The most famous of all AKP officials, Ozlem Zengin (picture right above), embodies the naked example of that political metamorphosis. A victim during the Kavakci era in the late 1990s, she has no compunction for publicly denying the persecution taking place under her watch. The lawmaker nonchalantly remains silent while her hijabi sisters face repression far worse than she personally endured in the 1990s.

After Zengin’s belittling of the human rights campaign to release imprisoned women and babies in Turkey, many came to believe that seeing covered women in positions of power does not mark the dawn of a democratic age many have expected. After all, now headscarf-wearing judges and prosecutors violate the spirit of the law, sending other hijabi or non-hijabi women to jail in politically-motivated trials with little or no evidence at hand. As long as this generation of judges countenances the government’s rape of the justice system, the long-dreamed achievement of headscarf’s liberation in Turkey means little for redeeming the country’s democratic deficits.

This does not necessarily mean that some Kemalists are right in their desire for banishment of veiled women from public service or education. It also should not be read as a vindication of the lingering secular doubts about the democratic maturity of the hijabi women in decision-making mechanisms at both national and local levels.

The headscarf in Turkey “remains an abiding element of culture wars and identity politics” because laicism is ingrained in the founding tenets of the country and a large part of the Kemalist population remain intolerant of Islamic women displaying their headscarves. (Richard Peres)

The gist of this essay, after reflecting on approaches of both sides, is that headscarf is not a marker of good or evil, liberty or suppression, progress or decay. It is only a personal choice. And that choice must be respected, regardless of the shifting cultural currents or political context.

Peres concludes his remarks with a poignant reminder:

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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