There is hardly any other political symbol in Turkey that divides society more than the headscarf. For decades, Turkish reasons of state viewed the headscarf as a threat to the modern and secular Turkish state. For Atatürk, the founder of the state, the headscarf embodied a backward-looking Islam.

It was still a scandal in 1999 when MP Merve Kavakçı entered the plenary hall of parliament wearing a headscarf. At the time, Social Democratic Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit shouted from the lectern: “This is no place to challenge the state!”

And in 2007 there was a heated identity-political debate when, with Abdullah Gül, a president whose wife wore a headscarf was to be elected for the first time. What was a no-go for secularists was a must for the Islamists of the ruling AKP.

Up until 15 years ago, Turkish female students had to take off their headscarves to enter a university, i.e. to be allowed to study at all. Women employed in the public sector were also not allowed to wear a headscarf for a very long time. The right-wing populist AKP has now been in power for 20 years and has largely abolished restrictions and bans on the headscarf.

It came as quite a surprise when, of all people, opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu announced two weeks ago that his party wanted to legally secure the right to wear a headscarf. After all, his party is the Kemalist-social-democratic CHP, founding party of the republic and traditionally skeptical about the headscarf.

Apparently, Kılıçdaroğlu has realized that electoral success in Turkey is not possible without women wearing headscarves. And in the June 2023 elections, he wants to be the opposition candidate to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

However, there are several snags. On the one hand, the opposition parties have not yet come to an agreement. They are still looking for a common candidate who has a chance against the incumbent. Whether that will be Kılıçdaroğlu is not certain.

On the other hand, the shot backfired. Erdoğan skilfully picked up the ball and announced that the proposed law is not enough. Instead, his party wants to change the constitution and enshrine the right to wear a headscarf in the Basic Law. What exactly the article of the constitution should contain is not yet known. However, it has leaked out that the gender-neutral term “spouses” is to be changed to “man and woman”.

In an interview with DW, Berk Esen, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, criticized this as an “blatant anti-LGBTQ step.” Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry in Turkey, but the planned constitutional article would have an additional symbolic homophobic meaning.

The own goal in the headscarf debate could cost Kılıçdaroğlu politically dearly, believes Berk Esen. He was not a popular politician anyway and now “his chances are even smaller” to become the opposition candidate. He weakened the opposition’s unity and “gave Erdoğan another opportunity to raise conservative issues.”

So the headscarf remains a highly politicized issue, for both secularists and Islamists. That says something about Turkish society, says political scientist Esen. “In a democratic society, the headscarf would have been a garment worn by a woman for religious purposes. It would have had no political significance.”

In contrast to politics, people in Turkey seem to have no need to discuss the headscarf at all. According to a survey by the opinion research institute Metropoll from February 2021, around 83 percent of Turks think that women in public service are allowed to wear a headscarf. Only eleven percent are against it. Even the CHP electorate supports the right to wear a headscarf by more than 80 percent.

Around 58 percent of Turkish women put on a headscarf when they go out, according to an IPSOS study from 2018. In contrast to some other Islamic countries, wearing a headscarf in Turkey is formally the private decision of women – if it is men don’t bring it up again.

Many women therefore reject the current debate in general – it is being conducted in the wrong way. “It is important that these rights and freedoms are not made dependent on whether any political party wins elections or not,” criticized journalist Nihal Bengisu Karaca in an interview with DW.

The ban on the headscarf that used to apply in many areas was not bound by a law, but was based on rules of procedure or arbitrary instructions from superiors. Nihal Bengisu Karaca emphasizes that these times should not return. That is why there is a need for “more robust, more permanent steps” that guarantee women’s freedom of choice. That could be a law – but it also needs a “change in mentality”. The debate is heated up on all sides, it is “not just the problem of the conservatives”, but a question of democracy.

The Muslim feminist Zeynep Duygu Ağbayır scolds: “We are fed up with the headscarf being turned into an instrument” to win elections – an accusation that includes the secular CHP as well as the Islamist AKP.

“What women should wear, whether they want to wear a short skirt or a headscarf, should finally and forever be freed from male politics,” demands Özgül Kaptan from the Platform for Women for Equality.

Many women experience enough coercion in their private lives, explains Muslim feminist Ağbayır. “There are some women who wear the headscarf voluntarily. But there are also numerous women who are forced to wear headscarves” by their families, husbands or brothers. “That’s the real issue we should be discussing.”

Men shouldn’t politicize women’s private affairs, says activist Kaptan. “Instead, one should have said, ‘From now on, we’re going to implement an equality policy that will ensure that politics doesn’t interfere with a woman’s choice of what to wear.’ That would have been the right message for any woman from any walk of life.”

Mitarbeit: Burcu Karakaş

Autor: Burak Unveren

The original of this article “Headscarf in Turkey: The politicized garment” comes from Deutsche Welle.