Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2017, 16:02 GMT

Turkey: Headscarved graduate students lead libertarian movement

Publisher Radio Free Asia
Author Nicholas Birch
Publication Date 12 March 2008
Cite as Radio Free Asia, Turkey: Headscarved graduate students lead libertarian movement, 12 March 2008, available at: [accessed 17 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Nicholas Birch: 3/12/08

Two Turkish headscarf-wearing graduate students, Neslihan Akbulut and Hilal Kaplan, constitute an unlikely pair of revolutionaries. Against the backdrop of the country's divisive debate over the lifting of a university headscarf ban, the duo is pressing ahead with a petition drive that seeks a radical expansion of civil rights.

In their petition, Akbulut and Kaplan call for a broad extension of civil and religious liberties in Turkey. Not only should women be allowed to wear headscarves on university campuses, they argue, various minority groups should receive greater state protection to follow their conscience. The petition, for example, urges measures to strengthen homosexual rights, while calling for an end to discrimination against non-Muslims, as well as non-Sunni Muslims.

"This isn't the first campaign I've been involved in, but it's my first as a head-scarf wearer," says Akbulut. "The aim is to attack the prejudice that girls like us are only interested in our headwear."

She confesses to be surprised by the publicity that the petition – titled We Are Not Free Yet – has received since its launch in mid-February. More than 1,300 headscarved women, including several prominent public figures, have now endorsed it. For a fortnight, the originators went from one TV station to another making their case. Kaplan is currently a graduate student in Sweden, while Akbulut studies at Bogazici University in Istanbul. A third woman involved in the drafting of the petition, Havva Yılmaz, did not attend university due to the headscarf ban.

Their notoriety comes as male politicians and academics on both sides engage in increasingly bitter verbal scuffles.

Tensions have increased since February 22, when constitutional changes aimed at lifting the headscarf ban received presidential approval. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. When Turkey's Higher Education Authority head ordered universities to let headscarf-wearing students in, many rectors called him a criminal and refused to obey.

In early March, the Constitutional Court began examining a secular opposition party's demand that the change be blocked. Many expect the court to ultimately uphold the appeal, thereby nullifying the parliamentary move to lift the ban. If this happens, the headscarf debate would move back to square one.

For many Turks, the headscarf matter has come to represent a critical struggle over the future direction of the country. "With sensitive handling, this headscarf issue might just have faded away," says sociologist Ayse Oncu. "Now solving it looks almost impossible."

As the Constitutional Court considers the case, the country's top administrative court, known as the Danistay, has erected a significant legal hurdle to the move, ruling March 11 that the Higher Education Authority did not have the power to order the acceptance of headscarves on university campuses.

Akbulut and Kaplan say they support the AKP government, which has held power since 2002. But their petition is implicitly critical of this conservative party whose early reformist zeal appears increasingly compromised.

From the start, the AKP has framed its efforts to lift the headscarf ban as a matter of freedom of religion. But if that is the case, the party is not applying an even standard of religious freedom. For example, freedom of religion is also the justification used by two members of Turkey's large heterodox Alevi minority in mounting a challenge to the legality of mandatory religious classes in Turkish schools. When a high court ruled March 3 that such religious classes should not be considered compulsory, rather than immediately accept the decision, the AKP Minister of Education described it as "impossible to apply."

For Kaplan, the existence of compulsory religious lessons is just one reason why debates sparked by the headscarf issue about threats facing Turkish secularism miss the point.

"Sunni propaganda imposed on non-Sunni Muslims? Strange secularism," she jokes, pointing out that in Turkey, non-Muslims cannot be civil servants, and Alevi places of worship are not recognized by the state.

"It's divide and rule," she says. "These strategies enable the state to turn different groups against each other."

For Akbulut, criticism of the system's paradoxes has been slowed by Turks' traditional statism. "The Ottoman Sultan is gone, but Turks still behave like his subjects: instead of equality they look for privileged relationships."

Some groups are beginning to break with that tendency. Faced in the 1990s with rising Islamism, Alevis – whose beliefs are very distantly related to Shiite Islam – at first turned to the state to uphold secularism. Now, growing numbers are calling for the state body that propagates Sunni Islam to be abolished. "Alevis used to shout ‘Turkey is secular and will stay secular,'" say Ali Murat Irat, an Alevi intellectual. "The slogan I hear more often these days is ‘Turkey isn't secular, but it will be.'"

What makes Akbulut and Kaplan's stance unusual, though, is that they are Sunni Muslims.

"Because they are a majority, Sunni have traditionally considered themselves Turkey's owners," says Ayhan Bilgen, former head of a Muslim human rights organization.

For him, the military intervention against an Islamist government in 1997 should have been a turning point for Sunni conservatives, showing them not only that the state did not tolerate them, but also the need for a civilianized Islam extracted from state control.

"AKP failed to do this because it returned to the old statist view of Islam", says Bilgen. "We defend the state and the state defends us, that old rhetoric."

For Akbulut and Kaplan, nothing shows the on-going loyalty of traditional Sunni Turks to the status-quo more clearly than their failure to join growing criticisms of Turkey's 25-year war in the Kurdish southeast.

"Think of it," Akbulut says. "If an army officer wants to get married in the officers' mess, his mother can't attend because she wears a headscarf. If he's killed, they call him a martyr, a religious word, and come and kiss her hands."

Ali Murat Irat thinks what Akbulut and Kaplan have written might eventually come to be seen as a milestone. The headscarf issue, he points out, is vital for the continuation of the Turkish status quo – impeding democracy by entrenching divisions between those who feel threatened by Islam and those who feel crushed by secularism. "The more headscarved girls who stand up and say this sort of thing, the more the two sides in the debate will have to start reflecting on their basic justification for their existence."

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Posted March 12, 2008 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: Copyright © 2006, RFA. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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