Neslihan Akbulut

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Standing outside of Istanbul’s Bilgi University, first-year student Efna Yilmazer was wearing a bright orange, floral pattern headscarf and a big smile on her face.

The Turkish parliament had recently passed a set of constitutional reforms lifting a decades-old ban on wearing headscarves in universities, and this was the first week that Yilmazer could openly wear hers to school.

"I feel happy," said Yilmazer, dressed in a long denim skirt and a red cardigan. "I have my freedom now. Before I didn’t feel free."

Previously the 20-year-old student would take off her headscarf before entering school, for fear the guards at the gate wouldn’t let her in.

Standing next to Yilmazer was a friend, Dilek Kocal, whose long, dark hair is uncovered. "I feel happy, too," said Kocal, also 20. "This is a sign of her religion. I believe she should be able to wear it."

It’s a rare scene of harmony, though.

Since parliament’s action in early February, Turkey appears to have become even further divided over the polarizing headscarf issue, with anti-headscarf protests taking place at some campuses and a large number of university rectors saying they will continue to enforce the ban, despite the constitutional changes. Turkey’s highest court is now considering a motion to have the changes repealed.

Women’s Groups Roiled

The issue has become especially contentious among Turkish women’s organizations. Some of the most vocal protests against the lifting of the headscarf ban have been led by women’s groups affiliated with Turkey’s secularist establishment. They are opposed by the country’s handful of Islamic women’s organizations. Stuck in the middle are Turkey’s unaffiliated women’s rights groups. So far, they have been only able to hold their own counsel.

"There is a lot of talk internally, but we have been silent on this issue," said Pinar Ilkkaracan, founding president of the Istanbul-based Women for Women’s Human Rights, one of Turkey’s leading women’s advocacy groups. "We have not been able to come up with a clear position on the headscarf issue because we have not been able to come up with a common position with women activists in the Islamic movement."

Over the last few years, organizations in Turkey’s women’s rights and Islamic movements have started developing closer relations. They worked together, for example, on pushing for expanded women’s rights in a new penal code passed by the Turkish parliament in 2004, which among other things imposes tougher sentences for the murder of women by their family members in "honor killings."

But the polarizing effect of the head-scarf issue has been seen as a setback by female activists.

"Because everything went totally haywire, naturally the dialogue has been damaged," said Zeynep Goknil Piyade, president of the Baskent Kadin Platformu Dernegi (Capital City Women’s Platform), an Islamic women’s rights group based in Ankara.

Added Neslihan Akbulut, general secretary of AKDER (Women’s Rights Organization against Discrimination), another Islamic women’s organization: "The feminist movement in Turkey has not said a word on the headscarf issue. I think that’s a poor point for them. Can you imagine a feminist movement not saying anything about this?"

Positioning Effort Abandoned

Leaders in Turkey’s women’s rights movement said they struggled to come up with a position, but in the end decided that issue was outside of their organizations’ mandate.

"Most of us don’t call it a women’s rights issue, but a question of individual rights and religious rights," said Selen Lermioglu Yilmaz, general coordinator of KA-DER, a nongovernmental organization that promotes women’s political participation.

More important, women’s rights leaders said, are their reservations about the government, run by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). While party leaders promoted lifting the headscarf ban as a matter of women’s rights, activists say other recent moves betray a less enlightened approach.

For example, a version of a new constitution drafted by the AKP–shelved for now–stripped away an article guaranteeing equality between men and women, substituting it with an article about women being a group in need of "special protection," along with children, the elderly and the disabled. On Friday a top prosecutor filed a motion to close down the AKP for trying to undermine secularism. Among the evidence is the lifting of the headscarf ban.

The 2007 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranks Turkey 121st out of 128 countries, dropping three places from its previous level.

Government statistics paint a bleak picture of women’s political participation, with women accounting for only 18 of Turkey’s 3,225 mayors and only one of the AKP government’s 25-member cabinet.

‘Show Us a Way to Support You’

"We told (the Islamic women’s groups), ‘Show us a way to support you on the headscarf issue. We don’t trust this patriarchal government,’" said KA-DER’s Lermioglu Yilmaz. "The major problem here is that women are not participating in the society, in the decision-making, and there are no positive measures being taken to change that. Lifting the headscarf ban is not in itself a way to change that."

It’s a sentiment that many in the Islamic women’s movement would agree with. "We did not want this change in the legislation to be grounded only on the headscarf. We were for a total package (of constitutional reforms)," said Piyade, of the Capital City Women’s Platform.

Her organization met with AKP leaders before the headscarf reform to offer their suggestions about making the constitution–drafted in 1980 by the military–more responsive to individual human rights. "In the end, the whole dialogue thing went into the bin and they came up with a totally different package, which is something that we are criticizing right now within the circles of the party."

A ban on wearing headscarves in universities started being strictly enforced in the late 1990s, as a kind of retort to the success of the Islamist Welfare Party at the ballot box, which raised concerns about the rise of political Islam in Turkey.

But observers say the fight over the headscarf also reflects deeper societal changes in Turkey, where an emerging Muslim middle class is looking to expand the opportunities available to it, be it in politics, commerce or education.

"It’s part of a larger power struggle between an old secular elite and a new Islamic elite," said Jenny B. White, a Boston University anthropologist who studies Turkish political culture. "It’s a battle over who gets to determine how Turkish culture is represented to the world and what the face of Turkish culture in the cities will be."

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul, Turkey, where he works as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.