Co-Founder & CEO of the AlSalam Institute for Women’s Studies SWS
The debate over hijab (headscarf) in Turkey was revived on October 4th when Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP, the main opposition party, expressed regret for the party’s support of the veil ban during the 1980s. The headscarf was outlawed in public institutions by the “public clothing regulation” issued after the 1980 coup, and began to be implemented in a radical way after 1997. (1) This ban was not lifted until 2013.(2)
Turkish President Mr. Erdogan grasped the opportunity by mockingly asking Mr. Kilicdaroglu to turn his words into action by supporting a constitutional amendment to guarantee women’s freedom to wear hijab.
It’s worth noting that this debate is taking place in a very polarized society while the 2023 presidential elections are approaching.
Not very far away, in Iran, women are fighting against the compulsory hijab. the government-imposed dress code that became mandatory in 1983, following the Islamic revolution. Many women have cut their hair and burned their headscarves in protest of the forceful imposition of hijab.
Few people know that the current events are almost a mirror image of what happened in 1936, but for the opposite reason. Reza Shah, the Iranian leader at the time, made the first attempt to make hijab illegal in public places. The legislation was met with fierce opposition at the time by the public, but the unveiling was turned into an official policy that was enforced through coercion and punitive measures. Iranian women’s clothing at that time was altered as part of the Shah’s modernization vision, which was influenced by Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s.(3)
When hearing statements like “(..)women are barred from entering state institutions” or “prohibited from joining universities,” in relation to imposed dress codes, one may be perplexed, given that the same mistreatments can be applied against women wearing or not wearing hijab in the same country but under different ruling parties. This is true not just in Iran and Turkey, but in every country where hijab has been raised as a public issue, including Afghanistan and France.
So, what is exactly the issue with hijab, and why is it such a contentious topic? Don’t these varied or opposing incidents in policy generate a cynical paradox about the subject?
There are many arguments for and against hijab within religious communities and societies, but arguably many scoff at the notion of distilling the subject to its most core- : ultimately, it is a woman’s choice about how to present herself in public!
Nonetheless, hijab has the critical ingredients that contending politicians can sniff miles away; elements including “women”, religion, and visibility come together to create the ideal combination for polarizing a society in attempt to win over voters. It all boils down to political competition and hegemony. Fundamentally, it is worth noting that the projection of power by political patriarchy is deliberate, and hijab is an invaluable vehicle for demonstrating it.
As we’ve learned in the earlier instances, any hijab mandate has historically rotated with the ruling parties’ preferences, thus, women are always on the lookout every couple of years to see if they will be permitted to wear hijab, forced to remove it, or forced to wear it. In other words, whether or not to wear hijab will be determined by the outcome of an election cycle.
Regrettably, political ideologies have traditionally targeted women because of their outward appearance as well as the perception that they are the weaker group in society. And whether we like it or not, most of our societies, be it in the East or the West, are still dominated by political patriarchy, causing women to lose their autonomy, and submit to the political will without any objection.
In fact, even when women object or even speak up, which they always do, they are met with a ready-made accusation, as well as derogatory language from within their society. So, if they want to veil, they are backwards and oppressed, and they need a saviour to be liberated. And if they do not want the veil, they are complicit in a Western plot to undermine their society’s values.
It is implied that the core tenet of the hijab debate is that women are inadequate beings who should either be “liberated”- from a secular perspective, or “protected”- from a conservative one. Unfortunately, few believe that women themselves, on both sides, made their decisions based on their own convictions.
Of course, there are always exceptions. For me, I recall my mother’s several successes in “liberating” me by aborting my few attempts to put on hijab before I turned 18. I finally managed to keep the hijab on then and she resorted to disowning me for about 2 weeks. Thankfully, once she realised how strongly I felt about the hijab and its importance for my religious and spiritual journey, she eventually came around to the idea. We still laugh about it whenever we remember it since she ended up becoming a convinced hijabi as well.
Again, the selective empowerment of one group of women over another based on political inclinations and preferences is detrimental to the cause of women’s rights as a whole. Simultaneously, some women’s voices or demands are overlooked by the mainstream media when they do not conform to a specific narrative. And this serves no purpose other than to turn a blind eye to the tyranny that women endure.
Therefore, celebrating women who remove their hijabs or cut their hair in defiance of the Iranian regime is just as significant as those who choose – and have fought to have the right to wear them in Turkey or elsewhere.
Finally, public discussion of the hijab issue only serves to advance the political patriarchy and dominance ideology. Women’s agency, including the basic right to decide what to wear and how to look, must be accepted, respected, and kept out of the public debate if women’s rights are to be upheld. But is this even conceivable in a world ruled by gray-beards and power-hungry politicians?!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of MPAC, its employees, or partners.