What Europe should learn from Turkey's headscarf fight

Women from all walks of life wear headscarves in Turkey. But it wasn't always that way. Nil Köksal explains why Europe can learn a lot from Turkey's own battle on headscarves.

Rulings against Muslim coverings could backfire, stoke sentiment that choice has been lost

Secular and religious Turkey in a nutshell. A scene in Istanbul's Taksim Square is framed by a flag with the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. (Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)

Conservative leaders in Europe are cheering, but before they get too excited about the European Union Court's decision on headscarves at work, they should pay close attention to how Turkey has handled what a woman can and can't wear on her head.

The images most minds conjure up when they think of Turkey are the mosques and minarets, the call to prayer echoing through the day — alongside cafes and a bustling nightlife in cities like Istanbul. It is a Muslim-majority country, yes. But one that banned headscarves for decades.


It is true. This country that holds Islam so close, is also a secular democracy and many here are determined to keep it that way.

Turkish girls participate in a computer class at a religious school in Istanbul. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

Beginning in the 1980s, successive Turkish governments did not allow women to wear headscarves in government offices, public service, even universities. Turkey's military has always been seen as the strongest defender of the country's secular values and was a big factor in the ban.

Going back even further, it was the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who brought in clothing regulations for both men and women. The goal was to keep religious symbols out of civil service, as he created the Turkish Republic in 1923. A must at the time, it is always taught here, to wipe out the religious and ethnic divisions already tearing the country apart.

That history, though, has created in some ways, a more religious society today, or, at least led to a new balance of power between Turks who openly practise their faith, and those who believe strongly in the separation of mosque and state.

A powerful tool

Women who choose to cover are making a powerful, personal choice. One that those who aren't religious might never understand.

But when that choice is taken away, it can become a powerful political tool. And Turkey is proof of that.

With signs that read 'Don't touch my headscarf!,' protesters in Ankara rally on Oct. 23, 2008 to push for changes to Turkey's constitution, which forbid headscarves in universities. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power in large part because of his promises to bring "real" democracy here, to fight the headscarf ban. He had himself been thrown in prison after reciting a poem authorities said was "inciting hatred based on religious differences."

He came up in a religious school system and knew the divides between religious and secular in this country. His was a world where people who wanted to practise their religion openly were marginalized, seen as "the other" and looked down on.

Erdogan's daughters studied abroad because of Turkey's ban.

When former Turkish President Abdullah Gul was an MP, his wife could not go to university because she covered her head.

Erdogan campaign seized on rift

A 2015 campaign ad from Erdogan's AK Party seized on those divisions.

A weeping actress in a headscarf tells her story: she was a top student, but couldn't dream of going to the university she was accepted to. She'd have to remove her scarf to do it. As the music swells, she sobs, describing the "persuasion room" she was forced into. A place where a university official would try to convince you to drop your head covering.

Turkey's ruling AK Party portrays the pressure in universities against headscarves during the 2015 election campaign 0:41

The video is dramatic and could be dismissed as propaganda. It goes as far as to compare the rooms to gas chambers. But that absurd and insulting comparison aside, the reality is, these persuasion rooms did exist.

Solidarity and divisions

A CBC colleague remembers his time in a Turkish university. A London-raised classmate, a young woman with perfect grades, was kicked out of class by one of their professors. "I won't teach you," he said, unless you take off your scarf. Many of the students walked out in protest.

A portrait Turkey's staunchly secular founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk hangs behind Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Feb. 28. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool photo via AP)

That kind of solidarity among students, among people across Turkey continues today.

Not everyone is bound by the polarization politics can try to force on them. On any given day you can see groups of friends, a mix of religious and secular, hanging out.

But there is still a large section of secular society that feels most of the pro-government people in this country aren't actually true believers, that instead, they are covering their heads and visiting mosques for political and financial gain.

And there are many in the more religious community who have a deep dislike for their secular neighbours.

Real fears

There are real, pervasive fears that secularism could be snatched away from Turkey.

The spectre of neighbouring Iran's revolution is a constant reminder. Secularists will always point to the speed of the change there in 1979 — from freedom, culture and style to religious shrouds and iron-fisted rule overnight.

In recent years, the Erdogan government has increased the number of religious schools. Just this year, evolution theory was tossed from the curriculum.

Still, bars are ubiquitous in many Turkish cities, alcohol is sold in grocery stores. 'For now,' secularists are always quick to add.

The headscarf ban in universities was removed in 2010 and other government institutions have followed suit in the years since. Last month, the government announced that female members of Turkey's military will now be allowed to wear headscarves.

Some see it as a sign of progress and equality. Others fear it is another step towards becoming a completely religious state.

Europe should take note: today's burkini bans and headscarf rulings may gain votes or appease far-right factions fearful of immigrants, but that kind of move won't solve any problems. It will create new ones. It will marginalize women. And it could create a generation of people who feel pushed into a corner and who one day might just want to push back.

About the Author

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.