Several weeks ago, I did my group presentation on Religion and Feminism. The topic I covered was Islam and the role Muslim women play in the public sphere, with an emphasis on the lives of Muslim women in Turkey. In my presentation, I briefly discussed the strict laws and regulations in the Republic of Turkey with regards to the wearing of hijab in public institutions such as schools, universities, and government offices. For my seventh blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to delve further into this fascinating and important topic and attempt to better explain the reasoning behind these highly restrictive laws and the effect these laws have had on the lives of devout Muslim women.
The roots of these seemingly harsh laws lie in the circumstances surrounding the creation of the republic in the early 1920s and in the ideology that arose out of this political upheaval. This ideology (which has since then been official state creed) has been dubbed 'Kemalism,' and is named after the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Kemalism stressed, among other things, the separation of religion and state, a principle that would, in the view of its adherents, help to empower women and allow them to play a meaningful role in society. This ideology continues to play a powerful role in Turkish politics. In recent years, there has been a growing fear that the secular state is eroding. These fears have been amplified after the rise to power of the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP, in Turkish), whose chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, became prime minister of Turkey in 2003. It is in this context that the strict regulations relating to dress (which we discussed in class) should be considered. The Islamic headscarf (or hijab), worn by many Muslim women, is prohibited in government buildings, in schools, and in most universities. These regulations are, as would be expected, very controversial, but they are justified by its proponents on the grounds that they are necessary to protect the secular character of the state, a key aspect of the Kemalist ideology which has governed Turkish life for close to 90 years.
This very issue arose in the case of Leyla Sahin v. Turkey. A female medical student, Leyla Sahin, brought this case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) challenging Turkish laws that prohibited the wearing of hijab in universities and other government institutions. Sahin relied on Article 9 of the "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" (adopted by the ECHR) which guarantees freedom of religion and protection from interference with religious activity provided that such interference is not necessary "in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Sahin alleged that the hijab ban constituted an "unjust interference" with her right to manifest her religion; that is, her right to wear hijab in higher education institutions, in accordance with her view of what is mandated by her religion, Islam. Unfortunately for her, the ECHR sided with the government of Turkey, finding that although there had been an inteference with her religious beliefs, such interference was justified. The ruling stated, in part:
"In democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on freedom to manifest one's religion or belief in order to reconcile the interests of various groups and ensure that everyone's beliefs are respected...Likewise, the Court has also previously stated that the principle of secularism in Turkey is undoubtedly one of the fundamental principles of the State, which are in harmony with the rule of law and respect for human rights...In a country like Turkey, where the great majority of the population belong to a particular religion, measures taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious movements from exerting pressure on students who do not practice that religion or on those who belong to another religion may be justified under Article 9, Section 2 of the Convention. In that context, secular universities may regulate manifestation of the rites and symbols of the said religion by imposing restrictions as to the place and manner of such manifestation with the aim of ensuring peaceful co-existence between students of various faiths and thus protecting public order and the beliefs of others."
Thus, in this matter, Turkish law was found to be compatible with the "Convention." Part II of this topic will further explain the arguments for these laws and how convincing they are given the realities of Turkish life today.