Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

Turkey: Situation of women who wear headscarves

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa
Publication Date 20 May 2008
Citation / Document Symbol TUR102820.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Turkey: Situation of women who wear headscarves, 20 May 2008, TUR102820.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4885a91a8.html [accessed 18 December 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.

The ban

With a policy of official secularism, the Turkish government has traditionally banned women who wear headscarves from working in the public sector (MERO Apr. 2008). The ban applies to teachers, lawyers (ibid.; HRW 16 Nov. 2005), parliamentarians and others working on state premises (ibid.).

In 2006, the ban on headscarves in the civil service and educational and political institutions was expanded to cover non-state institutions (ibid. Jan. 2007). Authorities began to enforce the headscarf ban among mothers accompanying their children to school events or public swimming pools, while female lawyers and journalists who refused to comply with the ban were expelled from public buildings such as courtrooms and universities (ibid.).

In post-secondary institutions

On 9 February 2008, Turkey's parliament approved a constitutional amendment that lifted the ban on Islamic headscarves in universities (RFE/RL 9 Feb. 2008). Prior to this date, the public ban on headscarves officially extended to students on university campuses throughout Turkey (US 11 Mar. 2008, Sec. 2.c). Nevertheless, according to Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007, "some faculty members permitted students to wear head coverings in class" (ibid.). Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) notes that since the 1990s, some rectors have allowed students to wear headscarves (RFE/RL 9 Feb. 2008).

On 5 June 2008, Turkey's Constitutional Court annulled the parliament's proposed amendment intended to lift the headscarf ban, ruling that removing the ban would run counter to official secularism (AFP 7 June 2008; AP 7 June 2008). While the highest court's decision to uphold the headscarf ban cannot be appealed (AP 7 June 2008), the government has nevertheless indicated that it is considering adopting measures to weaken the court's authority (ibid.; AFP 7 June 2008).

According to Middle East Report Online (MERO), there are no reliable statistics on the number of women who do not attend institutions of higher learning in Turkey because they wear a headscarf (Apr. 2008). In 2005, HRW estimated that these women numbered in the thousands (16 Nov. 2005). In April 2008 a scholar working with the Istanbul-based Organization for Women's Rights of Non-Discrimination (AKDER) estimated that between 2000 and 2007, approximately 270,000 of the 677,000 students expelled from post-secondary institutions were "victims of the ban" (MERO Apr. 2008).

A March 2008 survey carried out among approximately 1,500 students in 26 Turkish universities found that 52 percent of respondents were against the headscarf ban but 35 percent of students believed that lifting the ban would increase social pressure against students who do not wear a headscarf (Turkish Daily News 24 Mar. 2008).

According to the Christian Science Monitor, many young women who wear headscarves, including the daughters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have moved abroad in order to complete their university studies (11 Feb. 2008). Others choose to wear a wig covering their headscarves so that they can attend university classes in Turkey (Christian Science Monitor 11 Feb. 2008; Sunday Times 6 May 2007).

Since it came to power in 2002, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) has reportedly "been under intense pressure from its conservative supporters" to lift the ban (The Independent 28 Jan. 2008). In January 2008, the AKP came to an agreement with the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP), giving the two parties a parliamentary majority (ibid.) capable of enacting new legislation that would ease restrictions imposed by the ban (Newsweek 4 Feb. 2008).

The planned amendment met with protests from anti-headscarf activists, 100,000 of whom attended a rally in Ankara in early February 2008 (ibid.). Many secular Turks – who have a significant influence in the army, judiciary and university administration (AFP 7 May 2008; Reuters 14 Apr. 2008) – reportedly fear that women who are allowed to wear headscarves in universities will graduate and press for a wider lifting of the ban in the civil service, "transforming the Turkish state from secular to religious" (The New York Times 19 Feb. 2008).

On 9 February 2008, the constitutional reform needed to remove the headscarf ban from Turkish universities was approved by parliament with well over the required two-thirds majority (RFE/RL 9 Feb. 2008). As a concession to nationalist concerns, the legislation did not cover any changes to the headscarf ban beyond campus, such as in government offices (ibid.). In addition, media sources report that the lifting of the ban refers only to traditional Turkish headscarves tied under the chin, "while excluding the wrap-around version" (ibid.; Washington Post 26 Feb. 2008).

Following the lifting of the ban, media sources reported that there was a significant degree of confusion on university campuses concerning the specific details of the constitutional amendment (AFP 7 Mar. 2008; RFI 4 Mar. 2008). For instance, the amendment did not specifically refer to the right to wear headscarves in universities but rather states "that everyone has the right to equal treatment from state institutions such as universities and that no one can be barred from education for reasons not clearly laid down by law" (RFE/RL 9 Feb. 2008; ESI 2 Apr. 2008, 16). While some legal experts believe that the amendment did nothing more than reaffirm provisions that already exist within the constitution, others believe that even in the absence of the amendment, the constitution does not bar students from wearing headscarves (ibid.).

Since the lifting of the ban, some universities, especially those in rural areas, have welcomed students wearing headscarves, while others have decided to defy the amendment (RFI 4 Mar. 2008; AFP 7 Mar. 2008) despite threats by the Council of Higher Education (Yüksekögretim Kurulu) to take legal action against non-compliant institutions (ibid.). In April 2008, the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a non-profit research institute with an office in Istanbul (ESI n.d.), reported that some 100 out of Turkey's 116 universities continue to enforce the headscarf ban (ESI 2 Apr. 2008, 16), indicating that they will continue to enforce the headscarf ban until the government clearly outlines the specific types of allowable head coverings (ibid.; AFP 7 Mar. 2008). The AKP itself stated that it would "wait and see how universities take the amendment" before modifying the legislation if necessary (ESI 2 Apr. 2008, 16).

In April 2008, Reuters cited commentators and activists as predicting that if the Constitutional Court (Anayasa Mahkemesi), which has ruled against the AKP before, rules against the lifting of the headscarf ban, "devout women face a long wait before any party tackles the headscarf issue anew" (14 Apr. 2008).

In the workplace

According to Country Reports 2007, women who wore headscarves and their supporters "were disciplined or lost their jobs in the public sector" (US 11 Mar. 2008, Sec. 2.c). Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that in late 2005, the Administrative Supreme Court ruled that a teacher was not eligible for a promotion in her school because she wore a headscarf outside of work (Jan. 2007). An immigration counsellor at the Embassy of Canada in Ankara stated in 27 April 2005 correspondence with the Research Directorate that public servants are not permitted to wear a headscarf while on duty, but headscarved women may be employed in the private sector (Canada 27 Apr. 2005). In 12 April 2005 correspondence sent to the Research Directorate, a professor of political science specializing in women's issues in Turkey at Bogazici University in Istanbul indicated that women who wear a headscarf "could possibly be denied employment in private or government sectors." Conversely, some municipalities with a more traditional constituency might attempt to hire specifically those women who wear a headscarf (Professor 12 Apr. 2005). The professor did add, however, that headscarved women generally experience difficulty in obtaining positions as teachers, judges, lawyers, or doctors in the public service (ibid.). More recent or corroborating information on the headscarf ban in the public service could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

The London-based Sunday Times reports that while the ban is officially in place only in the public sphere, many private firms similarly avoid hiring women who wear headscarves (6 May 2007). MERO notes that women who wear headscarves may have more difficulty finding a job or obtaining a desirable wage (Apr. 2008), although this could not be corroborated among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Medical care

According to the Sunday Times, headscarves are banned inside Turkish hospitals, and doctors may not don a headscarf on the job (6 May 2007). Nevertheless, MERO reports that under Turkey's current administration, seen by secularists to have a hidden religious agenda (The New York Times 19 Feb. 2008; Washington Post 26 Feb. 2008), doctors who wear headscarves have been employed in some public hospitals (MERO Apr. 2008).

The Professor of political science at Bogazici University in Turkey stated that, in addition to never having come across any cases where women wearing headscarves had been denied access to medical care in private or public medical centres, he felt it would be unlikely that this would occur (12 Apr. 2005). The Immigration Counsellor at the Embassy of Canada in Ankara stated that "[w]omen who wear headscarves have full access to medical care (27 Apr. 2005).

Social aspects

According to the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, roughly two-thirds of Turkish women wear a headscarf (The New York Times 30 Jan. 2008; MERO Apr. 2008).

A 19 February 2008 article published in The New York Times links societal tensions over the headscarf to class differences between a traditionally secular urban elite and an increasingly urbanized and educated religious middle class with roots in the countryside. Those who support the ban fear that religious Turks will impose an Islamic ideology if restrictions are lifted (The New York Times 19 Feb. 2008). According to The New York Times,

[s]ecular women at parties speak disdainfully of covered women and the neighborhoods they populate. Older people shake their heads and cluck their tongues at them. (ibid.)

In the spring of 2007, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan nominated Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, as President of the Republic (Sunday Times 6 May 2007). In response, over one million people took to the streets of Istanbul to protest what they saw as a first step toward the fall of the secular state (ibid.).

In contrast, Turks opposed to the headscarf ban have reportedly created non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to advocate on behalf of headscarved women (MERO Apr. 2008). Further or corroborating information on these NGOs, however, could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

According to media sources, between 60 (Christian Science Monitor 11 Feb. 2008) and 70 percent of Turks support lifting the headscarf ban altogether (MERO Apr. 2008).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

References

Agence France-Presse (AFP). 7 June 2008. "Turkish Official Urges Constitution Change after Headscarf Ruling." (Factiva)
_____. 7 March 2008. "L'autorisation du voile sème la confusion dans les universités turques." (Factiva)

Associated Press (AP). 7 June 2008. "Turkish Parliament Speaker Suggests Measure Apparently to Reduce Top Court's Power." (Factiva)

Canada. 27 April 2005. Embassy of Canada in Ankara. Correspondence from an immigration counsellor.

Christian Science Monitor [Boston]. 11 February 2008. Yigal Schleifer. "Turkey Votes to Lift Head-Scarf Ban, but Battle Continues." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

European Stability Initiative (ESI). 2 April 2008. Turkey's Dark Side: Party Closures, Conspiracies and the Future of Democracy. [Accessed 29 Apr. 2008]
_____. N.d. "About Us." [Accessed 1 May 2008]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). January 2007. "Turkey." World Report 2007. [Accessed 29 Apr. 2008]
_____. 16 November 2005. "Turkey: Headscarf Ruling Denies Women Education and Career." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

The Independent [London]. 28 January 2008. Nicholas Birch. "Turkey Divided over Headscarf Ban Decision." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

Middle East Report Online (MERO) [Washington, DC]. April 2008. Hilal Elver. "Lawfare and Wearfare in Turkey." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

Newsweek [Washington, DC]. 4 February 2008. Grenville Byford. "Fighting the Veil." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

The New York Times. 19 February 2008. Sabrina Tavernise. "In Turkey, Is Tension about Religion? Class? or Both?" (Factiva)
_____. 30 January 2008. Sabrina Tavernise. "For Many Turks, Head Scarf's Return Aids Religion and Democracy." (Factiva)

Professor of political science, Bogazici University, Istanbul. 12 April 2005. Correspondence.

Radio France internationale (RFI). 4 March 2008. François Cardona. "Turquie : la laïcité divise le pays." [Accessed 29 Apr. 2008]

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). 9 February 2008. "Turkey Takes Steps to Lift Unviersity Head-Scarf Ban." [Accessed 10 Apr. 2008]

Reuters. 14 April 2008. Emma Ross-Thomas. "Headscarved Turkish Women Prepare for Long Struggle." (Factiva)

The Sunday Times [London]. 6 May 2007. Christina Lamb. "Headscarf War Threatens to Split Turkey." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

Turkish Daily News [Istanbul]. 24 March 2008. "Youth Take the Floor on Headscarf Issue." [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

United States (US). 11 March 2008. Department of State. "Turkey." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007. [Accessed 17 Apr. 2008]

Washington Post. 26 February 2008. Ellen Knickmeyer. "In Turkey, Students Test a New Policy on Head Scarves." (Factiva)

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Three professors specializing in Turkish politics and gender relations did not respond to requests for information within the time constraints of this Response.

Internet sites, including: Amnesty International (AI), European Country of Origin Information Network (ecoi.net), European Union, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), Institut français d'études anatoliennes (IFEA), Middle East Times, Today's Zaman, Turquie européenne, World News Connection (WNC).

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at http://www.irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/. Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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