I thank Senator Brownback and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe for this opportunity.
To be able to enter and speak at the American Congress as a woman with a headscarf is not something that I can take for granted. I am a member of a family whose lives have been torn about by the ban on headscarves in Turkey for over 3 decades. My mother was a professor of German literature when she was coerced to choose between her profession and religious conviction in early 1980s. She chose not to take off her headscarf and resigned at a young age. My father, albeit not directly, was also a victim of the ban. As the Dean of the School of Islamic Studies in Ataturk University, he was forced to enforce the ban on his female students at the very college where Islam and its mandate on women to wear scarves were taught. Little I knew that only a few years later I would face a similar challenge and would have to quit my medical school education as a freshman. The school administration was just not able to get passed my ‘looks’. My family had to move a foreign land to live, learn and work freely. In 1999, I paid another price for wearing the scarf. This time, as a duly elected Parliamentarian, I walked in to the Turkish Grand National Assembly to take my oath of office to serve my country. My fellow Parliamentarians chanted “get out, get out”. The Prime Minister called upon the MPs as he pointed at me and said “Put this woman in her place!” It took then the government only 11 days to revoke my citizenship and to start the prosecution for instigating hatred and discriminating against people, despite the very fact that I had parliamentary immunity. I was never permitted in. My seat remained vacant. Hence my constituents were denied from representation. The result was closure of my political party and a ban on my political activities for five years. My headscarf was perceived to be a threat to the secular state edifice.
My ordeal, however, was not an exception, rather, was typical of the human rights violations that have been carried out by the state against female citizens. Originally what began as merely a provision to regulate the dress code of federal employees in the 1980s has become a means of patent discrimination against religious women . While the state promotes equality for its citizens, it stifles, ostracizes women with headscarves. With a headscarf, a girl cannot get education in a junior high, high school or a university. She cannot work at a state or military office. She cannot enter the university or military grounds. Private realm is no exception to this rule. She even cannot give or get education at a private institution. She is not only precluded from “providing” service but, at times from “receiving” service as well. Medine Bircan was a senior citizen who paid the ultimate price by losing her life in 2002 . Because she wore a headscarf on her ID picture, she was denied healthcare in the emergency room of Istanbul Capa Hospital. That same year, at Ataturk University in Erzurum, mothers who wore headscarves to their children’s graduation ceremony were not permitted in unless they wore wigs on top of their headscarves . In 2003, Hatice Hasdemir Sahin, a woman who appeared before the Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara was denied the opportunity to give her testimony when the judge decreed that a public space could not be assumed with a headscarf . The wife of the Prime Minister, wife of the Speaker of the House, cabinet members, wives of MPs are not permitted in to the Presidential Residence . As a result, thousands of Turkish women are excluded from schools, universities and jobs. Some endured interrogations at the “persuasion rooms” established at their institutions.
The proponents of the headscarf ban voice various justifications for their stance: One of them is that the headscarf is antithetical to the values of the developed world Turkey yearns to be part of, namely democratic values. If that is the case, can we claim that the police officer who strips a little girl’s headscarf off against her free will acts within the boundaries of democracy and human rights? Can a state whose main responsibility is to meet the needs of its citizens and assist them to prosper, justify discrimination simply because its subjects choose to be religious? How can a state legitimize not only the social but also the economic ramifications of its systematic discrimination against its citizens? On one hand, the state promotes social and economic growth for women via education. On the other hand, it spearheads discrimination on women who wear headscarves. While promoting gender equality within its ideology, it prods inequality amongst women.
The second justification claim for the ban is that in a secular country public space cannot be assumed by any religious symbols. This simply involves the question of what the public realm is and is not. 70% of the Turkish women do wear headscarves. It is part of our culture, part of our religion and part of our history. We can inquire: On what bases could the “public” be denied from existing in “public”?
One other claim involves the argument that if the wearing of scarf is permitted, then the state would face the threat of perdition due to the proverbial reasons. States could indeed be secular. Could people be coerced to be secular? Is it legitimate to demand from one to leave her convictions at home as she walks out the door? Rather is it humanly possible to do such? Is it legitimate to confine one’s activities to certain areas of the public realm and deny her from others?
One final justification claim for the ban involves the “threat” thus the “fear” the headscarf engenders over women who do not wear them. Can the abridgements of specific ecumenical rights of one group be legitimized in pursuit of protecting another set of ecumenical rights of some other group due to the assumed “potential” threat of the former over the latter?
Despite the effect of the ban on headscarves in almost every facet of a Turkish woman’s life, the ban does not have legal status . It contravenes the Turkish Constitution as well as the international conventions Turkey is signatory to. Since the establishment of the Republic woman’s clothing has not been regulated via a law. Women had never been mandated to dress in a particular way. On the other hand, it is mandated that every Turkish man wear a hat. The ban on the headscarf is the most ostentatious, yet not the only manifestation of staunch Turkish secularism. The provision that mandates inequality vis a vis the graduates of the Imam Hatip Religious State Schools is another consequence of the secularism in Turkey. The law that bans the teaching of the Holy Book Qur’an to our children under the age of 12 is one other reverberation of the Turkish secularism. The unique construct of secularism espoused by the state is distinct from the secularism adhered in the Western world. While the state adamantly refrains itself from the clout of religion over state affairs, overtime, it shifts towards the “other” extreme, namely, secular fundamentalism. While it fervently rejects the concept of “religious state”, it creates a “state” religion. Due to this very fact, the Turkish religious authority, Diyanet is a state institution. The conceptualization of such unique construe of the Turkish secularism must be overhauled. It must be reexamined through open discourse. We must bring Turkish secularism from where it is at the far right to where it is supposed to be on the continuum. Meanwhile, the recent reforms Turkey has undertaken to meet the Copenhagen criteria give new hope to the women with headscarves. We know that the current government acknowledges the discrimination. The pain caused by the ban hits the homes of the members of the current government. Recently, the Speaker of the Parliament enunciated that he was waiting in patience for the revoke of the ban . We, the victims are waiting. The Parliament is waiting. The Turkish people are waiting. A recent study depicts that 71% of the people believe that ban must be lifted . This accounts to a national consensus. US Congress must urge the Turkish officials to hear the people of Turkey and act upon the “will” of the people to cease the blatant discrimination against Turkish women.
It is the right of every woman to live and work in dignity.