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 - War On Hijab

    Hijab Ban In Turkey

    The hijab ban in Turkey is not enshrined in law but is enforced by the secular state through various mechanisms and organisations used to pressurise civilians and civil organisations. Since 1997’s ‘postmodern coup d’etat’, the military have defined popular Islam as an internal threat to the secularist ideal of Ataturk. Universities were given the choice of prohibiting women wearing hijab from attending classes or losing recognition of their qualifications through disaffiliation to the government body YOK.  

    Many thousands of students were unable to graduate or were forced to leave the country to complete their studies. The hijab ban extends into schools, affecting teachers and pupils; as well as into the workplace, where there is a strict dress code for official employees. There has been a case of refusal of medical treatment to a woman wearing the scarf. Men too have suffered, as judges, soldiers, academic and government officials have received official warnings that they will have their employment terminated if their family members do not alter their style of dress to conform to ‘modern’ secular ideas. Three quarters of the population is against the banning of the hijab in universities and for public officials.

    Country Briefing: TURKEY

    “In Turkey, the people whose rights are restricted are not the minorities, but the majorities. Actually, the group of people whose rights are restricted are the Muslim majority. This situation has arisen as a necessity of secularism. For instance, matters like being a member of a sect or freedom of worship for Christian minorities were never restricted. The rights of Christian and Jewish minorities have been protected by international agreements. However, the rights of Muslim society have always been restricted by the rules of the secular state”. (Mumtaz Soysal 1995).

    “We want to let the European sisters know how it begins and where could lead”. (Hawwa, President of AKDER 2004).

    A History of the Hijab Ban

    When, in 1996, a coalition of secularist civil organisations began to oppose the ruling Welfare Party, arguing that they had violated the principles of secularism, the military took the opportunity to declare a state of emergency and martial law. This ‘post-modern coup d’etat’ enabled the government to reject the rights and freedoms of those whose rights and freedoms were guaranteed by the constitution. Fears concerning ‘internal enemies’ were used to justify ‘anachronistic and Jacobean primitiveness’ usually symptomatic of a military fascist regime and not expected in a democratic and pluralistic society. Any religious activity was seen as potentially undermining the stability of the state built on the secularist ideals of Ataturk, and so various actions were taken:
    February 1997 – Girls at religious schools banned from covering their heads. Also Istanbul University prevented all students wearing the scarf and all men with beards from attending.
    April 1997 – Imam-Khatib schools (schools with a religious curriculum) were shut down.
    June 1997 – ‘Western Work Group’ was formed by the military, aimed at generating public opinion against any possible threat of Islam.

    Effects of the Hijab Ban

    Hijab ban at work

    Many men with family members who wear the hijab are constantly in fear of being passed over for promotion, having their employment terminated or failing to gain employment. The following example fields of work are just illustrations of common events.


    In April 1999, Merve Kavaçki was prevented from taking the parliamentary seat she had been elected to because she violated the Turkish government’s ban on Islamic dress in state offices. This is after she had been approved as a candidate, campaigned and had been elected democratically. President Suleyman Demirel revoked Kavaçki’s citizenship.

    "Turkey is a country that has a target of full democracy. If we want a full democracy with no double standards, which means democracy for everyone, in an equal manner and hence in parliament, the representation has to be fair. … The parliament is not a state office. It is the parliament of the nation and consists of people who represent the nation. On the door of the parliament, they have some writing of Atarturk’s which says ‘the leadership and control unconditionally belong to the nation’. I wonder at how they can scream and shout ‘Get out! Get out!’ at me for one hour after I have been elected through the democratic process and emerged as the nation’s choice. … People have chosen me with my scarf!”

    Dress codes

    Those working in public institutions and organisations are subject to a code:

    “Women: Dress should be cleaned ironed... the head should be uncovered in the work area, hair should be well - combed and gathered together.
    Men: dress should be neat, ironed...the beard should be shaven everyday’.


    In 2000 2 judges were dismissed and 5 relocated. This is as a result of granting permission for female pupils to attend school wearing the hijab. A judge at a Tax Court was sent the following as part of a letter seeking his resignation:
    ‘Because of the clothes of your wife, which are not modern, an opinion came into being that you are closer to thoughts against secularism; and because you sit in two groups when you have visitors and it is said that in the office you listen to religious broadcasts and religious songs’.


    Soldiers who have joined the army as a career were pressurised to prevent their wives from wearing the hijab. On failure to comply some were dismissed and prevented from getting any other employment. The following letter demonstrates the sinister and controlling interference of the government in the private life of its citizens.

    Letter to a soldier November 1997:
    ‘The Islamic way of dressing is a political symbol that uses it for political propaganda. Your wife, with Islamic dress, has participated in not only home visiting, but also some social activities like family meetings with dinner. Although I have warned you verbally to change your wife’s dressing style in accordance with modern culture, your wife will not consider it. For this reason, this is my last warning to you. We can intervene in your wife’s dress style. This is our responsibility’.

    Hijab ban in schools


    All pupils are forbidden from wearing the hijab.


    No teachers are allowed to wear either hijab or wigs. Many trainee students were failed in their exams due to them wearing the hijab and many other teachers refusing to remove the hijab were sacked.

    Hijab ban at universities

    The hijab ban was not passed as a law, as it has been elsewhere. It was enforced through YOK (Association of Higher Educational Institutes). All educational institutes have to be affiliated to this organisation in order for their qualifications to be recognised. (National Security Council ruling: ‘all private hostels, foundations and schools connected with a religious sect must be inspected by the Authorities and the must be vested in Ministry of National Education’). YOK used the threat of disaffiliation to pressurize institutions throughout Turkey to comply with the government edict. Many faculties were reluctant but all succumbed eventually to huge political pressure and the fear of job loss and imprisonment.

    Spread of the ban

    The first university to ban the hijab was Istanbul University in 1997. The bans then spread eastwards as the pressure on universities from YOK grew. The last university to ban was Bosphorus University (an English medium establishment) in 2001.

    Banning of all alternatives to the scarf

    Many Muslim women sought any way to fulfil their religious duties whilst continuing their education. Some shaved their heads as a sign of protest, whilst others opted for hats and wigs, sometimes on top of their hijab. The sight of these women trying to evade the security by walking around the edges of the campuses to find gaps through which they could sneak their way into their classes with their hats pulled down and collars pulled up is a truly tragicomic one. But the university authorities were content with this level of humiliation, they went on to ban the ‘ideological hat and wig’ in many universities. Marmara University declared ‘it is forbidden to wear scarves, berets and wigs which can be defined as ideological’. They also declared that ‘female students should wear such clothes that their necks and heads would be uncovered’.

    Exam results

    Female students who were unable to attend classes because they were refused entry to the universities still had their names registered for the examinations. As a result, when they attempted to enter the examination halls and were prevented from doing so, their non-attendance was recorded as absence with cause. Hence they were unable to re-sit the exams, their marks were recorded as 0% and they forfeited their degrees.

    Membership of libraries

    Membership of libraries for a number of women was suddenly ceased due to their attire. Many of these women were long-term researchers.

    Hijab ban and hospital treatment

    In May 2002 women wearing hijab were prevented from participating in a meeting intended to inform asthma sufferers about the illness.
    In June 2002 Medine Bircan, a patient at Istanbul University Hospital, was refused treatment on the grounds that her head was covered in a photograph present in her documents. This clearly contravened article 1.5 and 1.6 in the European Declaration of Patients’ Rights (Amsterdam 1994).

    Popular opinion on the hijab ban

    According to research 96.9% of the Turkish population positively identify themselves as Muslims. 77.3% also see the republic revolutions as having taken the country forward. This challenges the view that Turkish society has become polarised between Islamists and Secularists. According to official statistics 76% of Turkish women wear hijab, but only 58.9% of people think it is obligatory. 76% of the population think that university students should be allowed to wear the hijab and 74.2% think it should be permissible for female officers of state as well.

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