A few days ago, one of the popular celebrities, namely Gamze Özçelik (born in 1982) was spotted wearing a headscarf. For a few days, Gamze Özçelik and her headscarf have been one of the hotly-debated issues on TV shows and programmes. I prefer to use the term “headscarf” instead of “turban” because in my opinion, “turban” has a loaded meaning and it refers to a politicized version of veiling. I think wearing “headscarf” seems more like a neutral personal choice not based on political ideologies.

In this blog piece, I will first put forward the historical background of the headscarf issue in Turkey and while doing this, I will try to evaluate the issue of veiling within the framework of Turkish political culture in a binary framework: first through official ideological setting (Kemalism) second through Islamic sensitivities and personal liberties. (I can state that wearing headscarf as a result of a religious duty can also be viewed as a reflection of personal liberties, I hereby should say that veiling is an Islamic duty not just an option or a choice)

The main thesis of my blog piece is that the headscarf issue is a matter of freedom and only a democratic culture can solve the tension originated from headscarf issue / problem.

The Historical Basis of Headscarf Affair

In general terms as stated above, some academics in Turkey employ the term turban and for them it refers to a “modern and town-dweller” woman while headscarf refers to the Anatolian and rural woman. The first type of woman is educated and also politicized. However, the woman wearing headscarf is not politicized and sees veiling as a part of culture not as a part of religious mindful practices.

The division between the public / private sphere has been one of the main causes leading to the headscarf problem in Turkey. Ahmet Necdet Sezer the president of the time-being (in 2004) made such a division and declared that headscarf issue cannot be viewed as a matter of freedom in the public sphere.

It is known that in Turkish modernization, the process had been mostly shaped by the identity of woman. The modernization movement was fictionalized through removing the significance of Islam in societal and political lives. The clothing reform is a good example of this.

The Turban problem firstly emerged in 1968. In 1968 a student of Theology, Hatice Babacan was not permitted into the campus and so demonstrations took place. After the 1980 coup d’etat, the headscarf wearing students again were not permitted into schools but in 1984 these bans were lifted.

The February 28 Process and Afterwards: Being An Observant Muslim A Nightmare?

As known in 1997, the Welfare Party-led coalition government was forced to resign. Necmettin Erbakan the political leader of the time-being signed the decisions taken in the meeting of National Security Council (MGK) and from then on, Islam and the public visibility of religion had been seen as a threat for the secular identity of the state. It can be said that the headscarf ban is a direct result of the monist understanding in Turkish political culture. The state tradition in Turkey until the AK Party era has adopted French style of secularism not the Anglo-Saxon type, this adoption has eroded the democratic well-being of Turkey.

In 1999, the Merve Kavakçı Affair has been one of the critical events showing how the state establishment had viewed the public visibility of religion. Many mainstream media organs of these years have depicted Kavakçı as a figure undermining the secular nature of the regime showing headscarf as a threat to secularism.

In 2003, the deputies whose wives wore headscarf were not invited to the October 29 reception and this created a serious crisis. Also in 2007 an e-memorandum was issued in the web page of the Army when Abdullah Gül became candidate for presidency. Gül’s wife wears headscarf and the e-memorandum had been seen as a direct reaction to that “turban”

The AK Party Era: Normalization

In 2002, AK Party was founded under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the masses having conservative identity have saluted the new party. The electoral victories of the party paved the way for the legal provisions as well. The lift of the headscarf ban in public areas was realized in 2013 and this step has been seen as an important steps towards normalization in state-religion relations.

Today, the headscarf issue is still a hot topic but of course not as hot as it had been before… The main segments of the society (Kemalists defending the view that turban is a threat to democracy and secularism and the conservative segment defending religious liberties) have conflictual ideas. Indeed the official ideology Kemalism has been viewed as an element of justification while stigmatizing headscarf as a symbol of politicization of religion. I disagree with that view.

Shortly, I can say that the Özçelik affair reveals the fact that Turkey still needs to revise her understanding of secularism and Kemalism because democracy can only flourish in a more liberal country wherein people are not stigmatized just because of their physical appearance or clothing preferences.


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