[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Turkey’s 10 percent national electoral threshold is often mentioned as a flaw in its democracy. This, it is said, disallows the representation of small social groups, especially the Kurds. In fact, the Kurds still find ways to get into the parliament, and they are already represented in major parties such as the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. But it is still a problem indeed that we have such a high threshold.
However, very few people ever notice there is another threshold in Turkey which keeps another social group, which is at least twice the size of the Kurds, completely out of the parliament. Although this group makes up at least 30 percent of the whole population, not a single individual among them has ever been accepted by the Turkish Parliament.
Well, actually there was one who once dared to join the parliament in 1999. Then 31-year-old Merve Kavakçı was elected as a deputy from Istanbul. But when she walked into Parliament on the very first day of her job wearing a headscarf she found hundreds of angry men determined to kick her out. They yelled at her for minutes, chanting “out, out,” finally forcing her to leave. Soon, the powers that be also stepped in and stripped Ms. Kavakçı of not just her seat in the parliament but even her citizenship as a Turk. Since then, she has been living and teaching in the United States — a place where, since the Mayflower, have offered religious freedom to persecuted believers.
The reason I am retelling this story of the tyrannical Turkish ban on the Islamic headscarf is that we now have a hope that it might, at least partly, be abandoned. The new leader of the arch-secularist main opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is certainly more liberal-minded than his predecessor, announced that he would support the lifting of the ban on university campuses. Although the more ideologically committed names in his party have shown resistance, it is still a big step for the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, to consider a free university open to all citizens.
But for the rest of us, it is in fact a very small step because the headscarf needs to be free not only in the campus, but simply everywhere – in public service jobs, government posts and all schools. And those who wear it should be fully equal to those who don’t.
I know that this is a very radical idea for many fellow Turks. So be it. It was a very radical idea just a decade ago that we could have TV channels in the Kurdish language. The limitations on freedom have been so gross in this country that it is a constant challenge to think about removing them one by one, and often one step at a time.
So, I have to defuse the counter arguments one by one, too. Those who are passionately against setting the headscarf free in public offices often argue two main points. They first say “religious symbols” should not be visible in any government post. That is a French-type secularism that I don’t buy, because it is based on an inherent bias against religion. A much better definition of secularism, I believe, is one that welcomes all symbols (religious or secular) to the public square, without discriminating against any of them.
In other words, a government official should be able to dress according to his or her religious commitments, and that should be no one’s business – as is the case in the admirably liberal United Kingdom.
The second argument Turkish secularists voice is that a government official will be “biased against unveiled women” if she herself is veiled. But that is itself based on a very deep-seated bias against covered women – that they can’t have a professional ethic and be fair to all. There is simply no research which confirms this presumption. Quite the contrary, there are actually reasons to believe that veiled women would be quite fair and principled when it comes to the rights of others. The Turkish media has many veiled intellectuals, for example, who take very liberal positions on the rights of Kurds, Alevis and non-Muslims.
Moreover, if wearing a headscarf is a symbol of a particular worldview, then not wearing it is a symbol of another. The state does not have the right to define one of these as the norm, and the expression of the “normal.” The state should simply be blind to all such differences and care about how public servants do their jobs, rather than what they wear.
Schools other than universities – high schools and even elementary ones – are another bone of contention. I, personally, would not prefer to see a 10-year-old girl wearing a headscarf. But that is my view. If her family has chosen to raise her in such a conservative lifestyle, they have the right to do so – just as Orthodox Jews have the right to raise their kids with kippas and peyots. Children, first and foremost, belong to their families, not the state. The state simply needs to respect what families prefer.
Finally, there is a theological debate about whether the headscarf is really an injunction of Islam. I think that is an interesting debate, but it should have nothing to do with the laws and regulations of a secular state. Women can wear, or not wear, the headscarf for any reason they want. All else, including the Turkish State, should show respect.