The Ban on Head Scarves Had to Go

What the world can learn from the latest secular v. religious stand-off in Turkey.

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Turkey's parliament voted overwhelmingly this month to end a ban on women wearing head scarves at universities. While this move was decried by Turkey's secular elite, it was the proper thing to do. The ban was originally intended to limit the role of Islam in the public sphere, but it wound up inflaming the passions of religious Turks who wished to freely and publicly observe their Islamic faith.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the head scarf debate is how difficult it is for a secular society with religious underpinnings to trust that its democratic institutions are strong enough to embrace full freedom of expression. But if Turkey remains committed to these institutions, the rest of the world, including the United States, would benefit by seeing that Western-style democracy, secularism, and Islam can successfully co-exist.

Turkey has had a secular tradition since the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey. From the start, there has been tension in balancing the needs of a Muslim population with Turkey's desire to maintain a secular, Western-oriented state. The Turkish military, which views itself as the protector of Ataturk's legacy, has staged four coups since 1960 in the name of furthering secular ideals.

While there have been a number of secular reforms over the past 85 years, the head scarf ban has been one of the most controversial. Ataturk, still an idol to many Turks, initiated the restrictions on Islamic and other religious clothing.

Turkish legislation in the 1920s and 1930s provided guidelines for students and state employees as to proper clothing, and decreed that religious garments should only be worn during of times of worship. The specific reference to head scarves came in the 1980s, and has been enforced since the 1990s.

Many who support the ban fear not only a rise in religious fundamentalism, but are also concerned that women will be pressured by family members and others to cover their heads in public. But besides angering much of the Turkish population – 60 percent of the people in Turkey favor allowing women to wear traditional headscarves in public – perhaps the biggest effect of the ban has been to exclude deeply religious women from higher education.

In fact, many women who were enrolled in a university at the time the ban was enforced chose to drop out rather than discontinue their religious practices. And despite the ban's goal of promoting secularism, the country has been more inclined to Islamist politicians and parties over the past decade.

Turkey is making steady progress towards becoming a modern and dynamic state that is both secular and Muslim. For that to continue, the ruling Justice and Development Party must continue the hard work of furthering tolerance and acceptance of those who wish to express their faith in daily life.

It will also need to continue moving forward with a range of economic, political, and social reforms if Turkey is to achieve its goal of being a member of the European Union. With these efforts, perhaps staunchly secular Turks will begin to trust that full religious freedom won't tear their society apart.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.