Once again the simple head scarf is proving to be the most controversial item of clothing in history. This time Turkey is embroiled in a storm over the square of material, worn by women who believe its wearing is essential to their adherence of the Islamic faith. Later this week, the Turkish Parliament is expected to pass an amendment to the constitution that will allow university students to cover their hair, but it won't be without a fight from secularists who believe the scarf threatens their national identity.
This situation is a mirror image of France's ban on female students wearing head scarves, which was just as controversial and led to many young Muslim women dropping out from mainstream education. In Turkey, less well off girls of cover feel they are discriminated against in terms of educational opportunities because their wealthier sisters are able to circumvent the problem by studying abroad. So for them the lifting of this restriction is welcome even though female teachers, civil servants and pilots will still be disallowed from wearing the scarf.
Last weekend up to 100,000 secular Turks rallied against the proposal saying the lifting of the head scarf ban was the thin end of the wedge; a precursor to Turkey becoming an Islamic state with Shariah law. They waved banners reading "This is Turkey, not Iran" and "Turkey is secular and will remain so". They also fear that once the wearing of scarves is no longer prohibited all female students will face peer pressure to don them.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan - whose own wife wears a scarf - says the move isn't meant to pave the way to a future Islamic state but signifies greater religious and personal freedom.
The country's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, whose wife is also a lady of cover, says his government wants Turkey to be a "first-class democracy where freedoms in all fields are fully enjoyed". Others in the government have implied such personal freedoms are a prerequisite to Turkey's EU membership aspirations. In principle that is probably true but in reality most EU members would prefer Turkey stuck to the status quo.
In the meantime, the government faces massive opposition from the judiciary, women's groups, the business community and university deans and professors; many of whom are threatening to bar hijab-wearing girls from their classrooms. Thus far, the powerful military has maintained its silence but is said to be watching developments carefully.
It's also likely the government is feeling the army's pulse, too, in light of a military coup in 1980 - allegedly backed by the CIA - which triggered the head scarf ban in the first place. At the time, the generals reinforced the secularist message of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and stressed the importance of national unity. The US denied any involvement but in any event the coup was a relief to then US President Jimmy Carter, who later commented "the movement for stabilization in Turkey came as a relief to us". It was pressure from European countries concerned at human rights abuses that hastened a Democratic transition three years later.
Today, the military still views itself as the guardian of Kemalist ideology wherein religious extremism is seen as a threat to the Western model upon which post-Ataturk Turkey was built.
Indeed, Ataturk, known as the father of modern Turkey, is still widely beloved for dragging his country kicking and screaming into a comparatively prosperous future. Part of his reforms involved banning the wearing of the traditionalist fez, turban and the veil, while Western-style hats became compulsory for male civil servants.
However, women's dress wasn't mandated under Ataturk's new laws, and photographs show his wife was covered while his adopted daughters were not. In "Ataturkism" Volume 1, Ataturk is quoted as saying "The religious covering of women will not cause difficulty...This simple style is not in conflict with the manners and morals of our society".
In truth, though, it was Ataturk's hope that women would naturally gravitate toward Western dress as his new liberal society took shape.
For today's Turkish government and its people the lifting of the scarf ban goes deeper than arguments over a piece of cloth and threatens to erupt into an all out struggle between secularists and Islamists within all walks of life, such as that which has occurred in Algeria leaving in its wake a trail of bloodshed.
My own view for what it's worth is this. Democracy goes hand-in-hand with certain inalienable personal freedoms, one of which is the right to choose one's own dress code, provided it isn't offensive to others on the basis of immorality or vulgarity. This is why I was vehemently against France's decision to ban Islamic head scarves in schools and Britain's attempts to forbid young people from wearing hooded garments citing security issues.
The more fear that such items elicit from some sectors of community, the more they will be worn by opposing sectors, and they will consequently attract more power to sway emotions.
"This simple style is not in conflict with the manners and morals of our society," said Ataturk referring to the scarf. Perhaps secularists would do well to remember that and adopt a live and let live outlook, which is a democratic staple. Far better that than internal conflict based on competing ideologies that in the end will benefit no one at all and may have detrimental political, social and economic consequences for everyone. (Courtesy: Arab News, February 6, 2008)
---The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org