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Headscarves and Secularism: Voices From Turkish Women

Headscarves and Secularism: Voices From Turkish Women

by Magali Rheault

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Free speech, headscarves, and military uniforms make for an odd combination. But ever since Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a second five-year term last July, constitutional reform has topped its agenda. At the core of the reform is the desire and necessity for the constitution to reflect the new political reality embedded in democracy and tolerance. Easing the speech law and lifting the ban on headscarves in state universities are just two of the issues the new draft constitution addresses. Recently, the headscarf issue has dominated public debate, virtually overshadowing the issue about freedom of expression. Many secular Turks worry that lifting the ban on wearing headscarves in universities is a strong signal that an Islamic revival is under way.

Last spring, when Turkey was plunged into political turmoil over the selection of its next president, Gallup asked Turks about their attitudes toward freedom of speech and religion. The nationally representative poll also asked women about their attitudes regarding the headscarf and its symbolism.

Level of Support for Freedoms

Currently, several laws, most notably article 301 of the Turkish penal code, restrict free speech. Several writers have been charged with insulting "Turkishness," an overarching concept that defines Turkey's identity, history, institutions, and culture. When Gallup asked respondents whether they would agree with the inclusion of a freedom of speech provision (allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day) in the draft of a new constitution, 93% of Turks say they would agree. Three percent say they would disagree with an inclusion of a freedom of speech provision, and 4% say they don't know or refused to answer.

Often compared to France's staunch separation of church and state, secularism in Turkey or laiklik is more akin to state control over religion. Most Turks support freedom of religion in their country. When Gallup asked Turkish respondents whether they would agree with the inclusion of a freedom of religion provision (allowing all citizens to observe any religion of their choice and to practice its teachings and beliefs) in the draft of a new constitution, 91% of Turks say they would agree with this provision. Six percent of Turks surveyed say they would disagree with the inclusion of a freedom of religion provision, and 3% say they don't know or refused to answer.

Seventy-three percent of Turks say religion is an important part of their daily lives, while 25% of respondents say it is not important. However, a question about the role of Sharia (Islamic law) in legislation helps clarify public opinion on the acceptable level of influence of Islamic law. Just 7% of Turks say Sharia must be the only source of legislation, while 26% say it must be one of the sources, and 41% say it should not be a source of legislation. About one quarter of Turks say they don't know or refused to answer. Overall, the findings suggest that although religion is important, most Turks would reject a legal system based solely on religious law.

Who Wears the Headscarf?

The Gallup Poll results show that nearly half (45%) of Turkish women surveyed say they wear a headscarf in public, while a slim majority (52%) say they do not wear a headscarf. Further, older women and those with little education are more likely to say they wear a headscarf in public: 71% of women aged 45 and older say they cover their heads in public, versus 40% of those aged 30 to 44 and 29% of those aged 15 to 29. Additionally, women with a primary school education or less (74%) are more than twice as likely as those with a high school or training school education (27%) to say they cover their heads. The sample size of Turkish women with a university education is too small to report.

In the late 1990s, Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that female students could not wear a headscarf in public universities. In other words, for several years now, religiously conservative women interested in pursuing a university education have had to decide between these two basic rights (education and religion). By choosing to pursue her education beyond the secondary level, a woman has to give up what she believes is a religious obligation and a part of her religious identity.

According to the latest UNDP Development Report, Turkey is one of the few countries in the greater Middle East North African region where the ratio of females enrolled in tertiary education to enrolled males enrolled is only 0.74. In most Gulf states, the ratio is above 1.40. In fact, in Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar this female-to-male enrollment ratio tops 2.0.

Turkish Women's Opinions on Headscarves

To better understand Turkish women's opinions about wearing a headscarf in public, Gallup asked women what their main reason is (or is not) for covering their heads. Perceptions that wearing a headscarf is a religious obligation (49%) and symbol of Muslim identity (35%) are the most-oft mentioned reasons by those who say they wear a headscarf in public. Less than 5% of respondents mentioned tradition, obeying a male relative, or making one feel confident as reasons why they wear headscarves in public. These findings suggest that in Turkey those who wear a headscarf do so to express their religious identity and fulfill their spiritual obligation, not because of coercion.

But what compels Turkish women to choose not to wear a headscarf in public? Almost 6 in 10 respondents (59%) say they do not believe wearing a headscarf is a religious obligation, and about 1 in 10 (11%) say they do not like the look of a headscarf. Fewer than 10% of respondents mention other associations such as to obey a male relative, the headscarf is old-fashioned, or to be seen as an equal as reasons why they do not wear a headscarf.

With its unique blend of national secular legacy and individual religious importance, Turkey provides a complex, but crucial example through which the headscarf associations can be analyzed. The poll findings show that of Turks surveyed most associate wearing a headscarf with being religious (66%). Also, almost 4 in 10 Turks mention freedom (38%) and oppression (26%) as being associated with wearing a headscarf. However, just 14% of Turks mention fanaticism and 12% of Turks mention backwardness as being associated with wearing a headscarf; two associations critics often use to portray the headscarf as a threat to a secular and modern society. Looking toward the future, Omer Taspinar, professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College and a Fellow at the Brookings Institution writes in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs that "the success of Turkey's experiment in synthesizing Islam, secularism, and liberal democracy would be a rebuke to the 'clash of civilizations' argument."

Overall, the poll findings reveal that majorities of Turks surveyed support freedom of speech and religion. The importance of religion for most Turks combined with their rejection of Sharia as the only source of legislation brings some important nuance to the secular-religious debate. In other words, Turks see religious and democratic values as compatible. Furthermore, Turks' attitudes toward the associations with the headscarf suggest that the decision to wear a headscarf is a personal one, based in faith and not in ideology. In all likelihood, the Constitutional Court will review the headscarf issue, which may delay the Turkish experiment, but it is certainly one worth watching.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with at least 1,001 adults, aged 15 and older, in Turkey in May 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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