Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Students with Headscarves (Mick Hartley)

Mick Hartley usefully juxtaposes headscarf stories from two neighboring Muslim countries, Turkey and (the Shiite Arab part of) Iraq. The two situations are different of course, and the social meanings of Islamic headscarves may well be different, too. But the second example helps illuminate why many secular Turks are nervous about the prospect of ending the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities.

In Turkey, supporters of ending the headscarf ban rarely justify it on theocratic grounds, at least in public debates. They present it as giving women greater freedom to choose whether they want to wear headscarves or not--and that way of framing the issue would probably strike most Americans as common-sensical. Many Turkish secularists, however, see it as the first step toward a situation in which, among other things, women will be forced by social pressure to wear headscarves whether they want to or not.

They might or might not be right, but such a concern is by no means sociologically absurd. In France, the country whose secularist republican tradition is the model for that of Kemalist Turkish republicanism, one justification for maintaining the ban on Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious insignia in schools and other public institutions was the argument that, in many cases, the ban on headscarves was the only thing that protected Muslim girls from being forced by family or community pressure to wear them. Thus it was argued--by some feminists from French Muslim communities, among others--that the headscarf ban, paradoxically, increased the freedom of Muslim female students more than it restricted it. (Other Muslim women strongly disagreed, of course.) That may or may not be correct. But it's intriguing to notice that, according to opinion polls at the time, Muslim women supported keeping the headscarf ban by 49% to 43% while a strong majority of Muslim men opposed it--which suggests that this analysis can't be dismissed out of hand. (And for some further relevant social background, see HERE.)

But different countries and different social contexts are ... different. Time will tell whether the worries of the more anxious Turkish secularists on this score turn out to be correct.

--Jeff Weintraub
Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
December 8, 2007
Students with Headscarves

The secularist legacy of Ataturk takes another knock, as the Turkish government plan to remove the ban on wearing headscarves in universities:
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, proposed the move as it put the finishing touches to a new draft constitution, setting the scene for heated debate between the centre-right Government and Turkey's secular elite. The ban is seen by its supporters as one of the pillars of Turkish secularism and a firewall against creeping Islamism.

The AKP, which is led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, insisted that the move was progressive. “This constitution will solve the headscarf problem in a more libertarian spirit,” Dengir Firat, a deputy chairman of the party, told CNN Turk television yesterday. “The headscarf is an extension of freedom of belief.”
The worry, of course, is that this seemingly liberal move will put pressure on women students in a Muslim country like Turkey to feel that they have to wear a headscarf. As is happening in Basra:
On her first day at Basra University this year a man came up to Zeena, a 21-year-old Christian woman, and three other Christian girls and ordered them to cover their heads with a hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

“We didn't listen to him, and thought he might just be some extremist student representing only himself,” she said. The next day Zeena and two of her friends returned to class with uncovered heads.

This time a man in the black clothes of the Shia militia stopped them at the entrance and took them aside. “He said, 'We asked you yesterday to wear a hijab, so why are you and your friends not covering your hair?'. He was talking very aggressively and I was scared,” Zeena recalled.

The girls explained that they were Christians and that their faith did not call for headscarves. “He said: 'Outside this university you are Christian and can do what you want; inside you are not. Next time I want to see you wearing a hijab or I swear to God the three of you will be killed immediately',” Zeena recalled. Terrified, the girls ran home. They now wear the headscarf all the time.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home