Virtual Voices

Headscarf debate divides Turkey

Religion

Is wearing the Muslim head scarf a symbol of political rebellion or an exercise of free religious expression? The question is dividing Turkey, a country long held as proof that a Muslim country can have a secular democracy.

Since the 1980s, Turkey has banned the traditional Muslim head scarf from universities and public buildings. Now the Turkish Parliament decides whether or not to lift the ban on scarves in universities. The bill's supporters decry the status quo as a violation of religious expression, but the bill's detractors worry that it means a move towards Islamist control of Turkey's government.

Zeyno Baran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told WoW that it comes down to the motivations of those who push the bill: "Do you believe that they are about democratization and freedom, or are they about taking Turkey in a different direction?"

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Baran said wearing the headscarf is an exercise of religion for many, "but no one can deny that the headscarf has become a political symbol." Detractors argue that for the western mind, the headscarf symbolizes women's secondary status and Islamist politics. Anthony Randazzo, a New York City student who spent a year working with Turkish college students, told WoW some of the women he knew covered their hair for modesty's sake. Others "don't really care about Islam but feel that it's part of their heritage, so as activists they wear head scarves," he said.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is leading the fight to lift the ban, has acknowledged that the headscarf is a political symbol. Once a staunch Islamist, Erdogan went to jail for sedition but then claimed to change. Skeptics say now Erdogan is showing his true Islamic colors, but Erdogan maintains that the bill is not an Islamist ploy but an issue of democracy and religious freedom.

Baran notes that Islamists have a different definition of freedom: "The freedom is mostly freedom for practicing Muslims - so freedom to wear the head scarf." Baran said there is a quiet, growing social discrimination against those who don't embrace the headscarf and other strict Islamic rules.

Turkey is applying to join the European Union at a time when the world fears Islamist extremism. Baran says the bill's detractors ask, "What kind of a signal does it also send in terms of where Turkey is headed?"

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