Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why the Turkish Lifting of Head Scarf Ban and New Student Dress Code Has Secularists Shuddering

by Nomad

Turkey's long-standing headscarf ban has been the bane of conservative religious groups for years. The ruling party has just issued a new dress code for public school students which will finally see the end of the ban.
Here's why a lot of people aren't very happy about the new dress policy. 

To understand the news about Turkey's headscarf controversy, it is helpful to realize how important symbolism can be. Especially the religious kind.

Back in the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal established the modern Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, he was determined to break with the theocratic tendencies of the past. 
The so-called "Father of the Turks" believed the excessive influence of religion in all aspects of life, but especially in politics and in state affairs had led only to backwardness. Secularism, Kemal believed, was the solution.

In his effort to set up a secular forward-thinking republic, he banned most of the articles of religious symbolism, like the wearing of the fez and beards for men and the Islam-mandated covering for the women. In all public buildings and government schools, fezzes and headscarves were formally banned. 
(If that sounds incredible or high-handed, remember this is a man who changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic script to Latin letters practically overnight.) Until the religious-based AKP party took the reins of government, that ban had gone unchallenged.

The Headscarf Cultural War
Like all government workers, public school teachers and students were forbidden to wear headscarves in school. In the private sector had for the most part followed suit with its employees.

For religious conservatives this headscarf ban has long been a thorn in the side. They have successfully defeated the ban. And they couldn't have done it without the help of Europe.

In the name of human rights, specially the freedom of religious expression, European human rights groups generally sided for a more religious tolerance. Secularist in Turkey felt that Europe was missing the bigger picture and warned that removing the ban on headscarves would be the small end of the wedge. 
The issue became a prime example of the division between secularist and the religious conservatives. 

That's why the Justice and Development Party (AKP) - Turkey's Islamist-based ruling party- has worked hard at overturning this long-standing law. And with Europe on its side, a majority in parliament and 51% of the vote, it has finally removed the last traces of the headscarf ban. 

On September 27, new regulations by government decree on a formal dress code in public schools were published in the Official Gazette.  The matter it seemed has been finally resolved. 
From now on, girls as young as 10 years old are to be allowed to attend classes wearing headscarves. Students in preschool institutions and primary schools, however, cannot wear headscarves. 

In a country where conformism and tradition generally takes a backseat to most expressions of individualism, it is not at all a small matter. Supporters of the lifting of the ban claim that it returns "a fundamental human right that has long been denied to Turkish women wearing the headscarf as they have openly faced discrimination by the Turkish state."

Not everybody agrees. As one journalist pointed out:
There is no point in saying that a 10-year-old wants to wear the hijab on her own will; it will come as a demand from her parents and/or her social environment. If the girl comes from a pious family, she will be forced to follow the same path, and the “headscarf freedom” in schools will certainly help.
However the decree did not stop there. 

Other Complications
According to a Turkish newspaper, the new regulations forbid students wearing makeup to attend public schools. More surprisingly, students will no longer be allowed to attend if they have piercings or tattoos.  
The article gives a full list of the dress code restrictions.
Students “are to be present in schools with their faces visible; cannot use scarves, berets, hats, bags or similar materials that carry political symbols, pictures or writings; cannot dye hair, cannot have tattoos or make-up; cannot have piercings; cannot have moustache or beard."
Politics and religion are so closely aligned, the new regulations banning of political symbolism on clothing is a little ironic. Other provisions in the code raised eyebrows like the banning on dyed hair, piercings and tattoos.
Beards and moustaches for high school students were already banned. Although Turkey abolished mandatory uniforms in 2010, students are allowed to wear them. (Surprisingly perhaps most students still do.)

Secularists see the dress code restrictions as an attempt to drive out all Western influences from public education in the country, leaving only Islamic religious expression in their place. 

Eğitim-Bir-Sen, an education sector trade union with conservative views, was quick to give its approval to the decree and to call for even tighter measures. The organization demanded gender segregated classes, another proposal that had found favor among the Islamists.   

More Rules, More Questions
All this is hardly what European human rights groups had originally called for. The idea was supposed to be about tolerance of religious expression. Something that Turkey would certainly have to do if it is still serious about wanting to be an EU member any time in the future. 

The Turkish government had already given Europe a cause for concern.

The AKP announced its plan to create mandatory religious classes for all public schools in Turkey. Religious minorities groups protested that such a plan would "overwhelmingly favor the Sunni interpretation of Islam" and be nothing less than government-supported religious indoctrination of the majority to the slight of the minority religions like the Alevis

After Sunnis, Alevis constitute the second largest religious community in is estimated at between 15 to 20 million or about 25% of the population (0.2% Christians and Jews, while the rest is predominantly Sunni).

Last week The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey's compulsory religion courses violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) article regarding the right to education. 
The European court rejected Turkish government claims that class' course books were changed and contained no religious bias. The Court observed in particular that "in the field of religious instruction, the Turkish education system was still inadequately equipped to ensure respect for parents' convictions."

While acknowledging that Turkey had introduced some changes to the structure of religion courses, including the inclusion of information about the Alevi faith, it ruled that "aspects of the curriculum had not really been overhauled since it predominantly focused on knowledge of Islam as practised and interpreted by the majority of the Turkish population."

The court also reminded Turkish officials that as a signee of the European Declaration on Human rights, Turkey had "obligation to be neutral and impartial" regarding religious issues.

The new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denounced the European court ruling. He claimed that teaching religion in public schools would provide a useful and necessary tool against the radicalization of Islam.
“If proper religion is not taught, it produces unhealthy and incorrect religious information that leads to the radicalisation seen in our neighbouring countries,”
The timing for that defense couldn't be any better.

The question that European human rights organizers are asking is who decides what religion is proper, healthy and correct.  After all, that's been a question that has plagued mankind since men began making footprints. 

Turkish secularists, most of whom still hang Mustafa Kemal's portrait in their homes and offices, would argue that the public education system isn't the place to teach any religion at all.