February 21, 2008
What Does the Headscarf "Mean" Anyway?
— Jeremy Walton
Early this February, the Turkish Parliament voted to approve emendations to the Turkish Constitution aimed at legalizing the wearing of the headscarf by devout Muslim women in public space, and, in particular, on university campuses. This vote comes as no surprise to any casual follower of the vicissitudes of Turkish politics; the governing Justice and Development Party and its predecessors have long touted legalization of the headscarf in universities as a prominent plank of their political platform, and the election of Abdullah Gül to the presidency last August created, for the first time, the grounds for a consensus on the matter between Parliament and the executive branch. Indeed, the political tribulations surrounding Gül's election—massive 'pro-secular' protests, a boycott by members of the secularist Republican People's Party, a successful challenge of the initial election in the constitutional court, rumblings of a possible coup from the staunchly secular military, and, finally, a second election—focused on the fact that Gül's wife dons the headscarf. From the perspective of Turkey's secular establishment, a veiled first lady is a flagrant violation of the aesthetic taboos of Kemalism. In as much as Gül's election was widely interpreted as a referendum on the "headscarf issue", the constitutional changes were expected by proponents and opponents alike.
As a result of the ideological din and political polarization over the issue, a great deal of perspective has been lost. A broader consideration of the genealogy of the controversy would include the roots of Turkey's stringent secularism in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's reforms of the 1920s; the turbulent clashes between the Turkish Left and Right during the seventies, which prepared the ground for the revival of political Islam during the eighties; and more recent crises surrounding the headscarf itself, such as the expulsion of a former Parliamentarian after she entered Parliament with covered head in May 1999. While such a thorough examination is beyond my scope here, even a cursory review of the public debate of the past few weeks and months provides insights into the manner in which religion comes to be defined within the purview of political secularism in Turkey. Briefly put, arguments both against and in favor of the freedom to wear the headscarf have attempted to define the "meaning" of religious practices in relation to institutions and privileges of citizenship. In other words, political debate in Turkey has elevated the symbolic status of the headscarf over its pragmatic importance as a means to piety on the part of Muslim women.
For supporters of the ban—the army, as well as journalists and politicians from the secular establishment—the headscarf is only "meaningful" as a symbol of the (political) oppression of women by a patriarchy rooted in religious traditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opponents of the headscarf in Turkey are uninterested in its traditional and ritualistic qualities. More interesting, however, is the fact that critics of the ban have been equally interested in its political meaning. The keywords for the progressive Muslims and liberals who have rallied against the ban are "freedom" and "equality"; they have articulated the headscarf as a symbol of the freedom of choice that must be guaranteed to all citizens of the secular Republic, including devout Muslim women. Indeed, the suggested change to the Constitution reads: "No one should be denied their right to higher education due to their appearance or clothing." Any mention of religion per se is absent from the proposal.
During my research among both Islamic and secularist foundations in Istanbul and Ankara—conducted from 2005 to 2007—I spoke to many women who wore headscarves of one type or another (indeed, the political contention that all headscarves are created equal is deeply problematic). While most were unanimous in their condemnation of the ban, this condemnation was almost always followed by a crucial elaboration: As one friend remarked, "The freedom to choose the headscarf is important, of course, but, for us, the headscarf itself isn't what ultimately counts. We are trying to be better Muslims, and the headscarf helps us to do this. That is the important thing."
The political uptake of the headscarf issue has articulated fundamental questions of the relationship among religion, liberal citizenship, and governance in Turkey. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that the political articulation of religious questions exhausts the "meaning" of religious practices themselves. In the case of the headscarf, a veiled university student may be seen to have made a "choice" in her garb, but, from her perspective, this "choice" may be more of an obligation and a means to piety than a political statement. It is this "important thing" itself that has been veiled in the vituperative political debate over the headscarf.
Jeremy Walton is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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