April 7, 2006

Turkish Headscarf Law Affects Speaker

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Prof. Merve Kavakci, international affairs, George Washington University, was elected to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1999 but was expelled for wearing a religious headscarf, a “hijab.”

A diverse group of people filled the lecture hall in McGraw yesterday evening as Kavakci presented her lecture on “Behind the Veil: Women, Islam and the Modern Nation State.”

Kavakci started off her presentation speaking about Turkey. The Turkish people predominantly practice Islam, with 99 percent of the population being Muslim. Calling Turkey one of the countries in the region that proved Islam’s compatibility with democracy, Kavakci said, “Turkey holds a very key position. My dreams and hopes are in that particular country.”

Kavakci presented the idea of the “Westernization Project” that was being implemented throughout Turkey since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This project posed the argument of tradition versus modernity, and the people of the Turkish republic were subjected to a change of alphabet and a secularization of government and education. The people had to adapt to western ideology and culture.

While Turkey was a good candidate, it is not a complete democracy, argued Kavakci. She called it more of a “liberalized autocracy.” Using the French word for secularism, “laicité”, Kavakci described how the secularism of Turkey isn’t actually secularism.

“The state is more involved in religious affairs. It almost tells citizens how to buy religion. Religion is a part of the national identity to the extent that the state agrees with it,” said Kavakci.

While various aspects are governmentally controlled in Turkey, such as the media, a conspicuous manifestation is the headscarf ban, according to Kavakci. In the 1980s, the government mandated that federal employees must have their hair uncovered, and this requirement was soon applied to students and professors as well. Kavakci claimed that this ban disseminated to various social and political strata, becoming one of the social cancerous matters of the Turkish republic with respect to the women, since 70 percent of the Turkish women wear headscarves.

The headscarf is a part of the culture, history and the religion of the Turkish people, and while the women are being empowered through this “Westernization Project,” the state is becoming an impediment to this project of empowerment.

“If this was a Turkish University, I would not be standing here,” said Kavakci.

Her personal decision to wear a headscarf not only lost her her position on the National Assembly but ended in her Turkish citizenship being revoked. After giving several examples of discrimination against women wearing a headscarf in Turkey, Kavakci remarked, “This didn’t start with me, nor has it ended with me.”

The women of Turkey desired to become liberated and educated, but they are also religious, which implies observing the headscarf. The ban was called a “homogenizing effect” by Kavakci, saying that all the women that continue to wear the headscarf are considered to have particular traits, such as being less empowered, un-liberalized or uneducated. They are, according to Kavakci, “backwards women that need to be ostracized.”

She feels the ban is ultimately an impediment to the empowerment of the Turkish women.

“If this is backwards,” said Kavakci, “then I am very proud of being backward.”

Some members of the audience objected to Kavakci’s views against the Turkish government, and challenged her arguments.

“I can definitely respond to both sides of it, but I think [Kavakci] answered questions very politely,” said Ariel White ’09.

“It’s just really exciting because she was a very controversial speaker represent the Turkish government. She really sparked dialogue. A lot of people were for her and against her, we had very polarized opinions,” said Khullat Munir ’09, next year’s vice president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice, which hosted the event.

Kavakci presented her position clearly when stating, “Do I look like I’m oppressed by a man? I don’t think so. I chose to wear this headscarf, therefore I am problematic. I am challenging the Westernization Project.”

Archived article by Noreen Rizvi
Sun Staff Writer