The headscarf in Turkiye – Erdogan’s new tool

Photo Credits: Sener Dagasan / Shutterstock

A long time ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party almost got banned. Only one judge’s vote was missing in the eleven-member body of the Constitutional Court. The accusation against the AKP: the Islamization of the country. Erdogan had called for women to wear headscarves at universities, which was forbidden in strictly secular Turkey at the time.

Fourteen years later. Erdogan has turned the state and the political system upside down as he sees fit. As a result of government reforms, women wearing headscarves have long been able to participate in all areas of public life. In the population, the topic plays almost no role anymore: where there is no problem, there is no debate.

But that doesn’t stop the two antagonists of Turkish politics from artificially reviving the discussion. Erdogan recently proposed a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to wear a headscarf in public places.

His adversary Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the largest opposition party CHP, had previously raised the issue – to snatch Erdogan voters from his conservative base and probably also to position itself as a party that does not exclude religious people from its politics.

The timing of the renewed debate is no coincidence. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in Turkey in just under eight months, and polls predict a neck-and-neck race between Erdogan’s electoral alliance and the opposition alliance. The urgent issues for the population are the economy and high inflation as well as migration, as surveys show.

With identity politics, however, it is easier to campaign – at least that is the calculation of the political camps. A Turkish law professor described the debate as “untimely and unnecessary”. It was a mistake for the opposition to raise the issue. “Erdogan must be happy about that, now he can divert the agenda from the economy,” he told the German Press Agency dpa.

State founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk campaigned against the headscarf in his day. He wanted to modernize Turkey according to the Western model. The first constitution of the republic still said: “The religion of the Turkish state is Islam”, in 1928 this sentence was deleted.

Other reform steps included the abolition of the caliphate and the ban on the fez and veil. In addition, the weekly holiday was moved from Friday to Sunday and the Latin alphabet was introduced. Laicism, i.e. the separation of state and religion, has been a constitutional principle since 1937. The Turkish armed forces have repeatedly staged coups against elected governments because they felt that Kemalist ideals were being threatened.

However, during his 20-year reign – first as prime minister, later as president – Erdogan gradually weakened the laicist principles and disempowered the military. A decades-old headscarf ban in public institutions has been gradually lifted since 2013.

Erdogan also vowed to raise a “pious generation”. A few years ago he even wanted to ban students of different sexes from living together in dormitories (which he failed), he had the theory of evolution removed from textbooks and had mosques and religious schools built.

Erdogan not only brought up the referendum on the right to wear a headscarf – he also presented plans for a new constitution for Turkey. This should strengthen the rule of law, pluralism, justice and equality and protect families and the rights of women who want to wear a Muslim hijab, the president said last month.

Civil society groups fear that the proposed reform will primarily target members of the LGBTI group, i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people as well as everyone who does not fit into the traditional image of gender and sexuality.

In a speech in late October, Erdogan said that a strong family equals a strong nation. “Can a strong family have anything to do with LGBT?” he said. “No, it can’t!” Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu spoke of “LGBT perverts” on Twitter last year. The Istanbul Pride Parade has been banned since 2015.

Although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, no laws protect the rights of this group of people and marriage is defined as a bond between a man and a woman. How exactly a possible constitutional reform will affect the rights of sexual minorities is not yet clear, but activists fear further discrimination.

Whether the right to wear a headscarf is enshrined in the constitution or not – it’s legal in public institutions anyway – is probably of less interest to the majority of the population than one pressing problem: galloping inflation. Consumer prices in October were 85.5 percent higher than a year earlier, the national statistics office said on Thursday. For comparison: In Germany, inflation was 10.4 percent in the same period.

Many people are suffering from the increased food prices. Erdogan, meanwhile, seems intent on winning next year’s election not with economic policy proposals, but with a vote on national identity.

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