Aksine, I say. (That’s Turkish for “on the contrary“).
This week, Turkey’s parliament revived its ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses.
The reasoning for banning the hijab is simple. Some factions of the secularist movement feel that public wearing of the hijab undermines the separation of religion and state. Some secularists fear that a visibile symbol of religiosity could lead to a rise in fundamentalism.
Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. It is also a democracy. Restricting freedom of religious observation and expression, then, seems wrong – doesn’t it? After all, hijab-wearing women aren’t demanding that public institutions stop activity during the five daily prayers (though interestingly, the call to prayer is still heard throughout the country) or asking that all women wear the headscarf.
Some of the ban’s supporters make an argument I’d like to find valid. They assert that for women otherwise forced to wear the hijab by their families or husbands, the ban provides a space – be it on the workforce or in the university – where they will be not just able, but required, to go without a headscarf. In short, women who don’t want to wear the hijab would be protected by the law.
In theory, this makes some sense. However, to believe that legislation like this would protect women from unreasonable family members is, I believe, profoundly naïve.
Do the ban’s supporters really think that a woman returning home to an illogical family or spouse will be well received without her hijab? Do truly oppressive, dogmatic families care that the law requires the women in their lives to violate what they view to be a religious obligation? Certainly not. The very nature of such mentalities is that they are beyond reason. I’m not endorsing the behavior of those who would mistreat the women in their lives. I’m simply acknowledging that they exist. I’m being realistic in a way that I wish the ban’s supporters would be. Women must follow this law – and thus it is women who will be directly impacted by the reactions it sturs.
I’d argue that women aren’t at all protected here. In fact, legislating women’s self-presentation is the oldest and most repressive game in history. Women’s bodies have always been used as a measure of a community or nation’s purity – be it racial, cultural, religious or secular. Rather than protecting women, then, the state sacrifices them to protect itself. It is women who will have to live with the spiritual, familial and other struggles of this legislation.
If Turkey is serious about democracy, and serious about the separation of religion and state, it would not restrict the choices women can make about their self-presentation and religious expression.
Turkey has good reason to be concerned about fundamentalism. The country must work to protect its democratic system. However, it needn’t borrow from fundamentalists by telling women how to dress.
A much more democratic approach would be to enhance education and vocational training for women – in a way that would reach both more conservative and more secular communities. It would also challenge those men (and women!) who would mistreat a non-hijabi woman. Further, resisting censorship (did you know that all of WordPress is banned in Turkey? All in an effort to silence a secular-minded Muslim!) doesn’t send the message of democracy. Reforming the Muslim mindset – including focusing on the education of both male and female children – establishes a robust, dynamic society. Legislating what women put on or take off, however, is the same tactic used by the enemies of democracy.
Why must women prove Turkey’s democratic success with their bodies rather than with their minds and their votes? Ultimately, the hijab ban tells us that the government can’t prove its own legitimacy as a democracy that protects women, their voices, and their bodies.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States presents Muslim women with more opportunities to express “traditional” Islam than a country that is, in fact, 98% Muslim?