Debate on religious headscarves returns to the heart of Turkish politics
In Turkey, the right of women to wear religious headscarves has returned to the core of the country's political agenda. With elections less than a year away, the leaders of Turkey's main political parties are vowing to enshrine the right for women to wear religious dress legally, an issue that for decades has been at the centre of a bitter political struggle.
With presidential elections due in June 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the leader of the main opposition CHP party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, are promising to introduce legal guarantees for the right of women to wear a religious headscarf.
Addressing party supporters in October, Erdogan – whipping up his conservative religious base – committed himself to constitutional reform to protect the rights of the religious.
"In order to completely ease the hearts of our daughters and sisters, I proposed the freedom of the headscarf," he bellowed to thousands of supporters at a rally in the provincial city of Malatya..
"What did I propose? We have started the preparation of a constitutional proposal by adding the protection of the family against the impositions of perverted trends, which is another vital issue," Erdogan added to rapturous cheers from the crowd.
A brief history of headscarf restrictions
Erdogan's lifting of restrictions a decade ago on religious dress – introduced to protect the Turkish secular state – is one of his most significant achievements, claims Emine Ucak, a journalist who wears a religious headscarf and writes for the news journal Perspective.
"The headscarf issue in Turkey was implemented within the framework of a law as a ban that prevented many women from participating in the public sphere and receiving education," explains Ucak.
"That was how it was in the past. And this lasted for many years, both in the public sphere, in public institutions, and the issue of education. But this ban wasn't only confined to public institutions.
"This continued in other sectors, in the private sector. So these women went through this trauma, some still couldn't go back to their professions," added Ucak.
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Throughout the 1990's and early 2000s, students wearing headscarves protested against a ban on them from attending universities, becoming lawyers or judges, or even a member of parliament.
The issue has proved a vote winner for Erdogan in the past.
In 2008 Erdogan, then as prime minister, won a landslide in a general election dominated by whether his political ally Abdullah Gul could be president as his wife wore a headscarf.
The staunchly pro-secular CHP strongly advocated the ban, holding mass rallies in its support. But now it's calling for legislation to guarantee the right to wear the headscarf.
"It is very significant because I believe that CHP has luggage because of those limitations, those bannings," said Politics and law professor Istar Gozaydin has written several books on religious affairs in Turkey.
"A step like that I find very, very successful in the sense of embracing more of the society, that a huge step in terms of CHP would be to be expressing yourself to fight for the rights of the whole, not just that certain amount of part of the society," added Gozaydin.
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The CHP's shift comes as – under Erdogan's two-decade rule – a generation has grown up without such barriers.
A conservative religious middle class also has emerged and prospered.
Some analysts say they are now more concerned about the country's present economic woes of near triple-digit inflation than past religious debates.
"Many of the fights their parents had are not these kids' fights, right? They don't care," said Can Selcuki, the head of Istanbul Economics Research, an opinion poll company.
"Let's take a head-veiled girl that's having her university education right now. Her fight is not to keep her veil on, but her fight is to get a better education and to get a higher-paying job, so she can start a family and a good career," continued Selcuki.
Erdogan's anti-LGBT platform
But Erdogan is seeking to broaden the debate calling for constitutional reform that not only guarantees the right to wear the headscarf but protects the family from what he calls "perverse trends," a reference to the LGBT community.
"There is a strong underlining of the family values, of the protection of the family," observes Gozaydin.
"And more its to do, not only with this scarf issue, which is I find quite a fringe issue for the moment but more with the LGBT+ groups. So he's trying to set an agenda against those groups within conservative circles."
Crackdowns are already enforced on what were once legal, public displays by Turkey's vibrant LGBT community.
While anti-LGBT protests have already started, as parties jockey to set the political agenda ahead of what is widely predicted to be closely fought elections.