The Headscarf Debate: Recognition and Citizenship by Yusuf Sarfati

Turkish media called it an ‘historic moment’. Four parliamentarians from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered the parliamentary session of the Grand National Assembly with their headscarves on 31 October 2013. This seemingly insignificant action was politically salient.Thirteen years ago, Merve Kavakçı, a member of parliament from the Virtue Party (VP), faced heavy protests when she entered parliament wearing a headscarf. In the aftermath of the incident, Kavakçı was stripped of her parliamentary seat, and the VP was closed down by the Constitutional Court. Similarly, political controversy ensued when the governing AKP, together with the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), passed two constitutional amendments in the Grand National Assembly on 9 February 2008. The aim of the changes made to paragraph 4 of article 10 and to paragraph 6 of article 42 of the Turkish Constitution was to allow veiled students to attend universities. The opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) took the amendments to the Constitutional Court arguing for their unconstitutionality on the grounds of Turkey’s commitment to secularism. On 5 June 2008, the Court annulled the amendments, and later that year, found the AKP guilty of encouraging anti-secularist activities. As a result of this ruling, the AKP received a serious warning from the Court, and half of its public funding was cut.

As these incidents reveal, wearing the headscarf in higher education and other public institutions in Turkey has been politically contentious during the last three decades. After the 1980 coup, the veil’s place in universities has been the focus of numerous legal battles between conservative parties and the higher judiciary. The first decision to ban the Islamic headscarf on university campuses was made by the Higher Education Council in 1984. Conservative centre-right parties then passed legislation to allow headscarf-wearing female students to enter universities. The Constitutional Court’s decisions in 1989, 1990, and 2008 thwarted each of these legal efforts.The debate around the headscarf became especially heated after the 28 February Decisions – which mark the ousting of the coalition government led by Erbakan’s Welfare Party through pressure from the military – and the implementation of the ban was subsequently more strictly enforced.

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