In the spring of 2011, amidst vociferous debates over the prospect of a third term in office for the “Islam-friendly” Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, a group of devout women launched an initiative called “No Headscarves, No Vote.” The activists demanded that all Turkish political parties include women wearing headscarves on their electoral lists. No fewer than 60 percent of Turkish women cover their heads in public, and the activists believed it was time these women had a place in formal politics. At the time, in fact, 50 of Parliament’s 550 members were women, and 30 of the women represented the AKP, but none of them wore a headscarf.

The women behind the “No Headscarves, No Vote” initiative are, for the most part, well educated and middle-class city dwellers. Several have been fighting headscarf restrictions in Turkey for over a decade as part of their involvement with faith-based NGOs that agitate for women’s rights. They expected their initiative to come in for heavy criticism from secular elites, or Kemalists, who ran the state for most of its history and still consider themselves the protectors of the secular character of the Turkish Republic. For those elites, the headscarf is a symbol of political Islam.

So the pious activists were taken by surprise when the most virulent reactions to their campaign came from conservative religious circles. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AKP’s prime minister, openly called the initiative “improper,” and male Islamist intellectuals followed suit by dismissing it as meaningless or accusing the women of being, at best, naïve and, at worst, a “fifth column” of Kemalists aiming to destroy the AKP. [1] In other words, the conservative men disregarded the women and presumed to speak for them, using rhetoric strangely similar to that of past politicians who sought to exclude women from politics and, for that matter, present-day Kemalists who want to keep religious women out of public institutions. The dispute over “No Headscarves, No Vote” points to the fact that devout women are still not treated as full-fledged citizens in Turkey, despite decades of struggle and the ten-year political dominance of the AKP. Rather, their struggle confronts new and perhaps more complex challenges.

Echoes of Past Repression

The first explanation that comes to mind for this state of affairs is the history of repression of conservative religious parties by the secular elites that traditionally occupied key posts in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy. In 1998, for instance, the Turkish Constitutional Court dissolved an AKP predecessor, the Welfare Party, and annulled its coalition government with a far-right party, on the grounds that Welfare threatened secularism. This decision was accompanied by a series of severe measures aimed at limiting the visibility of Islam in the public realm, including headscarf bans in schools, universities, city halls, courts and hospitals, which applied to both users and providers of public services. In 1999, the successor to Welfare, the Virtue Party, elected a headscarf-wearing woman, Merve Kavakçi, to Parliament, a first in the history of the Republic. When Kavakçi tried to assume her seat, she faced the harsh protests of other deputies, especially from the Democratic Left Party, and including former president Süleyman Demirel, who denounced her as an “agent provocateur.” There was no rule explicitly banning head covers in the legislature, but by wearing one Kavakçi had “challenged the unwritten laws of the parliament and enraged the deputies, as well as (secular) public opinion.” [2] She was not allowed to take the oath of office. The Constitutional Court later closed down her party, again on charges of undermining secularism.

In this atmosphere, the AKP was established. The party was born in 2001 of a scission within Islam-oriented political circles, of which it represented the younger and more pro-Western. Unlike Welfare, which had positioned itself against European Union membership and in favor of strong state intervention in the economy, the AKP leadership grounded its politics in a liberal discourse and embraced the free market. This strategy allowed the new party to forge broad coalitions and gain the support of the emerging devout, conservative middle class. [3] With these voters’ backing, the AKP won a parliamentary majority in 2002. One of the steps it took to avoid a new closure case was declining to address the question of headscarf bans in the first years of its mandate, focusing instead on a series of democratizing reforms in order to meet EU accession criteria. The party waited until February 2008, after taking 47 percent of the overall vote in July 2007 and securing the support of the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party in Parliament, to tackle bans on headscarves in universities, trying to amend constitutional articles ensuring, among other things, equal access to education. Despite the favorable circumstances, the amendments caused a big stir in Turkish society. They were used to file a closure case against the AKP in March 2008, as well as a case declaring the amendments unconstitutional on grounds of threatening secularism. While the party was not closed down, the Constitutional Court did reverse the amendments that October. From that point onward the AKP avoided the headscarf issue. University bans were finally relaxed in late 2010, but as a result of a change in attitude by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was eager to attract religious voters ahead of the next year’s elections. Even after winning its third term, the AKP did not back an October 2011 initiative by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party to lift the implicit headscarf ban in Parliament. [4]

To the outside observer this history of confrontation might seem sufficient for understanding the negative reactions of Islamist politicians and intellectuals to “No Headscarves, No Vote.” They simply wished not to trigger a new closure case or another Merve Kavakçi incident. Yet while such pragmatism might be part of the equation, the political situation in Turkey today is quite different from what obtained in 1999 and even in 2008. The AKP and its religious conservative affiliates have acquired tremendous political power, to a degree unprecedented for an “Islam-friendly” party in Turkey. This reality is illustrated not only by the change in attitude among the traditionally secular parties, but also by the diminishing power of secular elites in the army and judiciary. In fact, the reforms initiated in the early 2000s to meet EU accession criteria have substantially weakened the ability of these older elites to shape the ethos of the Republic. The military failed, for instance, in its attempt to prevent AKP member Abdullah Gül from being appointed to the ceremonial post of president in 2007; it failed in its endeavor to outlaw the AKP in 2008. The Ergenekon trial, launched in 2008 against an alleged underground ultra-nationalist group working to dislodge the government, was a milestone in the erosion of Kemalist hegemony. This investigation has been a disappointment to several commentators, who argue that it displays tendencies to opacity and authoritarianism that are reminiscent of Kemalist-run cases, but it nevertheless signals the ability of the AKP leadership to “reshape the military, judiciary and bureaucracy in the mold of a more religious Turkish identity.” [5] The AKP therefore faces little threat of military overthrow, either by tank or by “constitutional coup” of the sort that unseated Welfare.

The initiators of “No Headscarves, No Vote” were well aware of the new environment. If pragmatism played a role in the AKP’s rebukes, they stressed, it was jockeying for electoral advantage rather than fear of the Turkish “deep state.” In the spring of 2011, the AKP was keen to forge the widest possible coalition in order to secure the largest possible number of votes and attract voters deciding at the last minute. By inciting people to abstain from voting, the women’s campaign undermined this goal. Moreover, it was still considered quite a risk to put a headscarved candidate on a party list. “The AKP aims to win 42 percent of the vote and is staying away from veiled deputies because it regards them as an obstacle,” said Hilal Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the “No Headscarves, No Vote” effort. “It wants to have the support of the pro-status quo segments of society.” [6] Yet one wonders if that anxiety was overstated as well, bearing in mind that pre-election polls consistently forecast the AKP as the victor and that the party wound up garnering 49.9 percent of the vote and 326 seats in Parliament.

Double Discrimination

To find the missing pieces of the puzzle, it helps to shift one’s gaze to the role assigned to a certain “type” of woman in the construction of Turkish citizenship. Already in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, the morality of political projects was judged by the place accorded to women therein. It was therefore not surprising that when the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, the image of an active, “modern” woman was key to the identity of the new polity. This type of woman, having been “liberated” by the secular Republic, was viewed as marking a break with the Ottoman past, when women, it was said, were subordinated by religion. Emancipation was, however, less about the autonomy of the individual woman than about a patriarchal state determining the code of conduct women had to follow when participating in public life. Women were encouraged to unveil, for instance, but at the same time to protect their honor, which meant finding ways to mask their differences from men. As Deniz Kandiyoti notes, “Unlike the veil, which by concealing its wearer, confirms her unquestionable femaleness, the severe suit and bare face of the woman civil servant can emit a powerful message of sexual unavailability by deemphasizing femininity and projecting a neuter identity.” [7] The emphasis on women’s participation in public life has not been devoid of its own paradoxes. In practice, for instance, it has not prevented women from being underrepresented in positions of power throughout Turkish history, including in Parliament. Moreover, while the projection of “neuter identity” has been considered a prerequisite for equality in the public realm, gender differences have remained deeply ingrained in the private realm, which is pervaded by hierarchical and unequal relationships. [8]

The ability to participate fully in the life of the Turkish Republic has, in other words, been mediated by both gender and religion since the Republic’s earliest days. Turkish women’s bodies and behavior have been the markers of boundaries between the private, familial, religious realm and the public, rational, secular one. Indeed, women wearing headscarves have served as the clearest markers of those boundaries, as the headscarf advertises not only their religion but also their gender difference — both of which elements have been identified as belonging to the private domain.

In the late 1980s, Turkish Islamist parties started to challenge the boundaries between private and public by opposing headscarf bans in public buildings. But their understanding of active citizenship continues to be haunted by traditional dichotomies. In fact, it is more instructive to understand the opposition to headscarf bans as a reflection of the growing economic and political power of religious conservative elites than a commitment to full inclusion of headscarved women in the activities of the Republic. That perspective, in turn, points to a crucial distinction between the presence of headscarved women in previously “secular” spaces and their ability to participate in public life along with others on an equal footing.

The emergence of the AKP has meant that headscarf-wearing wives of politicians, including the spouses of Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül, have been invited to state dinners and official receptions — another first in Turkish history. By the same token, the growth of the devout Muslim bourgeoisie has meant that women routinely wear headscarves in shopping centers, coffee shops and other places where they previously did not. There is a parallel growth in consumption of a new Islamic fashion displayed in mainstream newspapers and on television. [9] Interestingly, however, the headscarf has remained far harder to find in the workplace. Secular elites still discriminate against pious women seeking to become civil servants, lawyers in courtrooms or even mid- to high-level managers in the private sector. Moreover, while in the past, religious conservative politicians would sometimes seize on such cases to lambast Kemalist bias, they do so less frequently today.

This trend is clearly illustrated in a report from the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) on discrimination faced by women wearing headscarves in the work force. The report reads: “Cases of discrimination and rights violations, which are believed to have diminished and even to have been reversed in favor of headscarved women during the two terms of the AKP administration, continue to be recorded.” [10] The TESEV researcher further notes that pious women who face an unwritten headscarf ban in the public sector must also contend with inequities in the private sector, even in businesses owned by devout men. The latter problems stem from the fact that devout women are primarily defined as mothers, housewives and caregivers. Businessmen, particularly religiously conservative ones, are thus inclined to act as the women’s protectors: “They face a discourse that deters them from working on the grounds that ‘they have no obligation to provide for the family’ and that ‘their most important duty as a woman is to be a mother,’ a discourse mediated through a rhetoric produced out of the piety of headscarved women when it comes to gender roles in the family.” [11] When headscarved women do succeed in finding a job in a private company, they are frequently asked to keep a low profile, as the company would otherwise worry about its image. The preoccupation with image is salient even at religious conservative-run companies: “‘Green’ capital operates contrary to expectations,” the TESEV paper quotes one informant. “Even that low-paying job is a backstage one, like, in a place where you’re not visible. If there are two headscarved women in the secretariat of the newspaper I work at, they don’t really like that. They say, ‘one wearing a headscarf and one who doesn’t’ or ‘no headscarved women there.’ It’s as if they want to present the right image to outsiders, like a shop window.” [12] Not surprisingly, many firms take advantage of prevailing social attitudes to offer headscarf-wearing women positions and salaries that are far from commensurate with their qualifications. The TESEV findings are interesting in that they show how both secular and pious men tend to relegate devout women to the realm of the family. When these women enter the world of work, they grapple with double discrimination — they are treated differently because they are women and because they display their religious faith.

There is double discrimination in political life as well. Indeed, the whole point of the “No Headscarves, No Vote” campaign was to call into question the expectation that headscarved women be invisible and thus unequal in citizenship rights. To put it differently, the campaigners object to the attempts to impose strictures on the presence of headscarved women in public spaces, even if their actual presence can no longer be resisted. These women are asked to inhabit public space more as mothers, daughters and wives of devout Muslim bourgeois men than as intellectually and financially independent women. When they choose the latter option, they are quickly reminded of the rules of the game by the likes of prominent Islamist intellectual Ali Bulaç, who criticized “No Headscarves, No Vote.” Asked the campaign spokeswoman Kaplan: “Is it possible that what Bulaç cannot stand is the veiled [women] who work and make money, rather than just staying at home and looking after children? Or is it that these women can step up in society with intellectual and civil initiatives, creating public spaces for themselves, without looking at what the male intellectuals say?” [13] It would seem that, far from revolutionizing the terms of access to Turkish citizenship, the unpublished rules for headscarved women in the AKP era are reproducing the old terms, perpetuating old divisions between the religious, familial realm and the secular, rational one.

As a result, the struggle of devout women activists for full inclusion in Turkish society is becoming more complex. It must target not only the crusty secular establishment, but also the actions and inaction of the AKP and its bureaucrats. [14] Nonetheless, demands like “No Headscarves, No Vote” are important, as they highlight the patriarchal structures that continue to underpin the understanding of citizenship in both religious and secular circles. They demonstrate that religious and secular worldviews are not always in conflict, but can be deeply interrelated. This fact sheds light on why one activist says she is wary of comments by optimistic observers for whom the new Turkish constitution, work on which commenced in late 2011, will resolve the issue of headscarf discrimination. [15] The formal lifting of restrictions is an important step, as is underlining equality for all, but neither will put an end to deep-seated prejudice.

The demands of Turkish activists echo those of pious Muslim women in Europe and elsewhere, whose access to full citizenship rights is increasingly being restricted because they wear the headscarf. Paying greater attention to these women’s difficulties should permit more thorough reflection on the exclusionary dimensions of liberal and secular sentiments. It might also lead to review of justifications for these headscarf restrictions on the basis of a nominally irreconcilable divide between secular and religious worldviews. In their daily lives, after all, devout Muslim women often transgress this bright line, only to reconcile the two sides, imagining spaces where women cease to be the objects of either secular or religious fantasies.


[1] Mustapha Akyol, “Veiled Women Versus Conservative Men,” Hürriyet Daily News, April 6, 2011; and Timur Şafak, “No Backing for Veiled MPs in Turkish Parliament,” Middle East Online, April 17, 2011.
[2] Nilüfer Göle, “Islam in Public: New Visibilities and New Imaginaries,” Public Culture 14/1 (Winter 2002).
[3] Sebnem Gümüşçü, “Class, Status and Party: The Changing Face of Political Islam in Turkey and Egypt,” Comparative Political Studies 43/7 (July 2010).
[4] See Fatma Dişli Zıbak, “Why Is the AKP Reluctant to Address the Headscarf Ban?” Today’s Zaman, October 14, 2011.
[5] Kerem Öktem, “Turkey’s Passive Revolution and Democracy,” Open Democracy, June 9, 2011.
[6] Şafak, “No Backing.”
[7] Deniz Kandiyioti, “Gendering the Modern: On Missing Dimensions in the Study of Turkish Modernity,” in Sibel Bozdoğan and Resat Kasaba, eds., Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 126.
[8] See Yeşim Arat, “The Project of Modernity and Women in Turkey,” in ibid., pp. 95-112.
[9] Yael Navaro-Yashin, Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).
[10] Dilek Cindoğlu, “Headscarf Ban and Discrimination: Professional Headscarved Women in the Labor Market,” TESEV Publications (Istanbul, 2011), p. 6.
[11] Ibid., p. 2.
[12] Ibid., p. 94.
[13] Akyol, “Veiled Women.”
[14] Interviews with supporters of “No Headscarves, No Vote,” Istanbul, August 2011.
[15] Interview with “No Headscarves, No Vote” campaigner, Istanbul, August 17, 2011.

How to cite this article:

Amelie Barras "The Struggle of Devout Turkish Women for Full Citizenship," Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This