Monday, January 07, 2008

FT got it wrong on the Muslim headscarf ban in Turkey 

I was reading an opinion piece about President Abdullah Gul's Washington visit on the Financial Times, in which I spotted a frequently made mistake in the international press about the Muslim headscarf ban in Turkey, and decided to correct it. The author, Vincent Boland, claims that:
"Mr Gul’s wife wears the Muslim headscarf, which is banned in official buildings in Turkey."
It is true that Mr Gul's wife, Mrs. Hayrunnisa Gul, wears the Muslim headscarf, but it is simply not true that the headscarf is banned in official buildings in Turkey. Women covering their heads with a scarf are free to enter almost all official buildings: public schools and hospitals, post offices, central and provincial offices of nearly all ministries, court buildings, etc, as long as they are not working there. A student's mother, for example, can certainly go to her child's school and talk to the teacher, or go to the office of the Ministry of National Education, wearing a headscarf. However, if the mother happens to be a teacher herself at the same time, she cannot perform her job with her headscarf. She has to take it off. In the last ten years or so, a frequent argument one hears in the headscarf debate is the supposed distinction between those at the receiving end of the public service and those at the giving end. Accordingly, headscarf is OK if the wearer is not a public servant and on duty while wearing it. This argument was especially embraced by those desperately seeking a solution to the problem of female university students wearing headscarves. They claimed that just as a woman with headscarf can receive treatment at a public hospital, she should also be able to receive education at a public university.
I should also note that certain official buildings are off-limits to women with headscarves even if they are on the receiving end of the public service equation; the most visible examples are military buildings and universities. A mother wearing a headscarf cannot even attend his son's or daughter's wedding if it is held at an Orduevi (military community centre), visit her sibling's home if it is in a military lodging facility, or attend her sibling's graduation ceremony from a university. The military tries to argue that there is a difference between the traditional headscarf and the ones they have banned, in the so-called turban style, claiming that the latter has become a political symbol. But when you ask them what the difference is between the two headscarves, it all boils down to the so-called turban-wearer's insistence on fixing the scarf on their head with the use of metal pins. Thus, you come across the bizarre scenes of military personnel, asking women with headscarves with an embarassed attitude to please remove the pins on their scarves and tie the knots below their chin in a "rabbit-ear" style. The argument is as superficial as this, really.

There is another point that needs to be made. The headscarf ban for working women is not only found in the public workplaces, it is actually present in nearly all parts of the private sector. In the west, one is accustomed to the talk of "inclusion", and such notions as "equal opportunity employer" and yet, it is clear that a "glass ceiling" separates women and members of minority groups to climb the corporate ladder. Well, in Turkey, for professional women with college degrees, the glass ceiling begins at the entrance door, if they happen to wear headscarves. Take a look at the companies listed in the Istanbul Stock Exchange's 100 list (IMKB-100). You will NOT find a SINGLE woman with a headscarf as a manager, engineer, specialist, or any other white-collar profession. It's not as if there are not any women with university degrees who would like to cover their heads with a scarf, there are many! However, they cannot get a job anywhere, not just the public but the private sector as well, if they would like to keep their headscarves. The choice is theirs: either they will take off their headscarves and work, or they will stay home and use their diplomas as wall decoration.

In conclusion, Muslim headscarf is not banned in official buildings in Turkey. Nevertheless, for women professionals who would like to wear Muslim headscarves while working, it is banned almost everywhere.

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