A Wrinkle in the Fabric of Society

In Turkey, head scarves are potent political symbols.

A Turkish woman in a chador and one in a traditional headscarf

It can be a little wisp of fabric, nothing more. It comes in longer versions, shorter versions, versions that cover the hair, others that cover the face. According to Le Monde, you can even get a Viennese stylist to design one in the manner of “Catherine Zeta-Jones or Naomi Campbell,” with a whiff of supermodel glamour.

But whatever shape it takes, and whatever you want to call it, the political controversy surrounding the scarves that many (though not all) Islamic women use to cover their heads will not go away. The debate surrounding head scarves, banned in French schools and some German state institutions, has just re-emerged at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit, one that could, if successful, bring down the Turkish government.

Brought by the chief prosecutor of Turkey, the suit—to put it bluntly and briefly—accuses the ruling party of violating Turkey’s Constitution, and it proposes to evict its leaders, including the prime minister and the president, from politics. The central point of this sticky legal clash between the “secularism” of the Turkish Constitution and the “will of the nation,” as the ruling party calls it (or the “dictatorship of the majority,” in the words of Turkey’s chief prosecutor), is the head scarf: Last February, the government lifted a long-standing ban on the wearing of them at universities, and Turkey’s secular classes are furious.

This kind of controversy is not entirely new to Turkey, where political parties have been banned in the past (and prime ministers hanged in the more distant past) for insufficient secularism. What strikes me as important this time around is the enduring significance, once again, of that simple piece of cloth.

To outsiders, the issue usually seems petty. (The International Herald Tribune titled its editorial on the subject “Much Ado About Head Scarves.”) Those with an Anglo-American bias—myself included—have often been persuaded that the issue is one of personal liberty: A head scarf should be a matter of “choice.” But if politicians are grandstanding about head scarves, maybe that’s because head scarves, at least in Turkey and a few other places, are political symbols and not purely religious “choices” at all.

Fairly or not, in certain Turkish communities, a head covering in fact marks the wearer not just as faithful but as a believer in a particular version of Islam. Fairly or not, the head scarf carries with it, at least in Turkey, partisan connotations, as well as a suggestion of the wearer’s views of women. Political scientist Zeyno Baran pointed out to me that most of the wives of the current Turkish political leadership wear head scarves, that most of them donned the scarves after their marriages, and that most of them never worked or studied again after they wed. You can see why women who want something different might feel threatened.

In fact, the Turkish ban was first instituted in the 1980s precisely to protect these bareheaded women, as well as the secular students who wanted to remain so. For 20 years or so, the ban was relatively successful. After a few initial protests, it was widely accepted—how else can a deeply divided society survive, unless it creates zones of neutrality?—at least until the current government tried to get rid of it again this year.

For the record, the French head-scarf ban—though widely mocked when instituted in 2004—is at the moment considered a great success, at least by the French government. Droves of girls did not drop out of school, as predicted. Every year, French officials say, there are fewer conflicts over the issue. Over time, they argue, Muslim girls will find it easier to integrate into French society.

None of which is to say that Turkey’s supreme court can or should oust the Turkish government: I’ll let Turkey’s lawyers fight that one out. But if they try to do so, let’s not pretend it’s unimportant. And if, someday, this argument comes to our shores, let’s not be surprised by that. In the end, the head-scarf debate isn’t about a wisp of fabric but about the viability of secular Islam itself.