What makes headscarves political: wearing or banning them?

Published as "Covering up the truth" in the Parliament Magazine,
1 October 2007

I remember standing in front of a university campus in Izmir, Turkey, and watching a young girl wearing a headscarf approaching the gate. She reached for her headscarf and swiftly removed it. The details of her face have eroded over the years, yet the expression on her face – tinged with humiliation, resentfulness and anger – still lingers. It was only at that moment I realised what millions of women like her might feel everyday. Since then, I have asked myself again and again, what would I do or feel if I were in their shoes?

I am not a Muslim and have strong problems with Muslims who seek to force women to wear headscarves. On a recent trip to Iran, I witnessed the arrests of two young women whose headscarves and sandals violated the orders of the new police chief of Tehran, who had been disturbed by the increasing hair and skin showed on the streets under the burning Persian sun. I could not sleep that night for the same reason I struggled with watching a woman forced to remove her headscarf: every human being should be free to live according to their conscience.

There are various arguments we hear about banning headscarves, ranging from national security to hospital hygiene and need for full facial pictures on IDs. The most widely heard argument within and outside Turkey is “we have nothing against people having freedom of belief and practice, it is just that they are making wearing the headscarves political”. There are two significant problems with this seemingly convincing argument.

First of all, what does it matter if headscarves have turned into political symbols? Isn’t democracy the creative space in which individuals or groups can express themselves, whether it be through their fashion sense or political aspirations? As we say in Turkish, “Özrü kabahetinden de beter” – the excuse is worse than the actual fault. The public arena is by its very nature political and it is the core of our political system that gives the individual a right for personal political expression. Thus, the reasoning that “they are making it political,” which this argument uses to convince us to accept the banning of headscarves, is no real reason at all. To my mind this automatically makes banning ungrounded.

If outward signs of one’s beliefs and views are not compatible with the Turkish constitution and its unique perception of democracy, then surely we should be stopping people from wearing certain kind of beards and dresses, or growing pointed moustaches and using peculiar hand shakes to represent their political beliefs. Since we are not enforcing the consistent banning of such symbols – not least because to do so would be to undermine our own political system – the rhetoric that states “actually I have nothing against them” is truly a poor one, if not a self contradictory one, and shows that we in fact do have something against “them”.

The second issue is that banning headscarves has become the cause of the problem that it seeks to solve. Wearing headscarves is a religious practice that dates from ancient times, and has been practiced by many religions, including Muslims throughout the history of Islam. If a modern country bans a historical religious practice, doesn’t the act of banning itself make it a political issue as controversial as any other apparent contravention of an individual’s rights by a sovereign power?

Since religious beliefs transcend any current political context by their very nature, banning them tends to have an automatically counter-productive impact, in that it makes people cling to them all the more fiercely – a stubborn resistance prompted by a ‘fear of God’ that is far more consequential than ‘fear of man’. Thus, increasing calls for bans to be lifted, and political pressure to do so, are merely the results of banning headscarves in the first place.

Yes, the women who wear headscarves may be trying to make a political point, but I doubt if the point is to change Turkey into a theocratic nation overnight with the magic of filling our streets with more women who wear headscarves. Political systems do not change when people are allowed to dress as they wish. These women are trying to communicate a genuine point. They are banned from equal opportunities and treated as less than citizens. And yes, they are now shouting louder than ever to make the rest of us hear their voice.