Turkey is facing a difficult summer. Last Thursday the Constitutional Court declared the February 2008 parliamentary decision to relax a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves by women in universities to be in violation of the country’s secular constitution. Whilst the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi or AKP) argues that the banning of scarves is restrictive, and prevents religiously observant women from being educated, Turkish secularists – particularly those in the ranks of the army, the courts, and academia – see the hijab’s presence on campus as an erosion of the religion-state separatism introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. The issue is a complex one, and it’s likely to attract a good deal of attention. So why do women wear the veil?
It’s misleading simply to suggest that the veil is prescribed in the Qur’an, or to characterise it as a symbol of Islamization, the growing influence of Islamic symbols and discourses on society. The Qur’an instructs both men and women to dress modestly, but does not specify the form that dress should take. For example, it was only in the early twentieth century that female supporters of a Sunni Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, adopted the full veil, believing themselves to be reviving a practice followed by Muhammad’s wives. In some settings today, Islamic religious clothing is required by state legislation. Iranian law, for example, requires women to dress modestly and this is usually interpreted to mean a full length cloak (chador) or a hijab and long overcoat (known by the French term, manteau). In other contexts, more complex factors come into play. A woman might wish to voluntarily assert an Islamic identity in a predominantly non-Islamic society – be that one in which the majority population is of Muslim or non-Muslim heritage (like Turkey or Britain respectively). This may be for religious reasons, to signal that her primary loyalty is not to secular authority, but to God – or it may even be just to appear exotic, subversive, or simply ‘different’. Some Muslim feminists argue that wearing the hijab enables them to challenge the tyranny of patriarchy: covering up is less about the oppression of women than it is about the denial of the male gaze.
It’s also worth remembering that for many people today – for Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus as much as for Muslims – religious observance is not a matter of once-and-for-all-times absolutes – yes or no; veil or no-veil – but of occasional distinctions, of observances that are subject to ongoing re-negotiation and modification. Many Turkish women, for example, do not cover their heads on a daily basis, but do wear headscarves for Friday prayers. In the course of heated arguments, subtlety often gives way to generalisation. The Turkish crisis is a real one, with wide implications, not least because of Turkey’s strategic geographical position and its current status as a candidate for membership of the European Union. But in assessing developments in coming weeks it is important to remember that the meanings of and reasons for hijab vary from place to place - and sometimes from day to day.