Photograph by Burhan Ozbilici, AP

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Women shout slogans to protest against a ban on the wearing Islamic head scarves in universities, in Ankara, Turkey.

Photograph by Burhan Ozbilici, AP

Why Turkey Lifted Its Ban on the Islamic Headscarf

Women who work in civil service or government can now wear a hijab.

Turkish women who want to wear the hijab – the traditional Islamic headscarf covering the head and hair, but not the face – to civil service jobs and government offices will be able to do so now that the Turkish government has relaxed its decades-long restriction on wearing the headscarf in state institutions.

The new rules, which don't apply to workers in the military or judiciary, come into effect immediately and were put into place to address concerns that the restrictions on hijab were discouraging women from conservative backgrounds from seeking government jobs or higher education.

"A dark time eventually comes to an end," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to the parliament. "Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it."

Ataturk's Fashion Police

Turkey's restrictions on wearing overtly religious-oriented attire are rooted in the founding of the modern, secular Turkish state, when the republic's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, introduced a series of clothing regulations designed to keep religious symbolism out of the civil service. The regulations were part of a sweeping series of reforms that altered virtually every aspect of Turkish life—from the civil code to the alphabet to education to social integration of the sexes.

The Western dress code at that time, though, was aimed at men. The fez—the short, conical, red-felt cap that had been in vogue in Turkey since the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II made it part of the official national attire in 1826—was banished. Ataturk himself famously adopted a Panama hat to accent his Western-style gray linen suit, shirt, and tie when he toured the country in the summer of 1925 to sell his new ideas to a deeply conservative population. That autumn, the Hat Law of 1925 was passed, making European-style men's headwear de rigueur and punishing fez-wearers with lengthy sentences of imprisonment at hard labor, and even a few hangings.

Curiously enough, Ataturk left women's attire alone. In granting women the freedom to decide for themselves whether they wanted to cover their heads, it was more or less assumed they would eventually give up the headscarf as the new, secular Turkish identity took hold. Many did.

Fall From Favor

By the 1970s, though, and particularly after Turkey's military coup in 1980, discouraging headscarves had taken on the force of law. The headscarf was banned in government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools. By the 1980s, these lengths of cloth had taken on hot political connotations.

Critics worry that Turkey's relaxation of the headscarf ban will blur the line between religion and the state and could herald a stealthy march toward an Islamist state. When the repeal was announced this week, Turkey's opposition party declared it "a serious blow to the secular republic."

Others see it as a long-overdue reform. "The lifting of the ban on headscarves ends a disgraceful human rights abuse that took away futures of generations of women in Turkey," says U.K.-based Turkish academic and commentator Ziya Meral. "Yet this is likely to create tensions, particularly in western Turkey, once women wearing headscarves start appearing in workplaces and becoming more visible in certain sectors.

"The challenge that lies before Turkey is not whether or not Turkey is becoming more religious," he emphasizes, "but whether or not Turkey will finally move on from a rigid, state-controlled public space into a pluralistic society that can accommodate different ethnicities and beliefs."

Europe's Hijab Restrictions

Turkey's lifting of its ban on the hijab comes at a time when a number of countries are debating or imposing restrictions on traditional Muslim head coverings – particularly full-face veils such as the burqa and niqab, which are already banned in France and Belgium. Italy has banned full-face coverings under counterterrorism laws since the 1970s. The Dutch government has also drafted legislation banning the burqa. Some German states forbid it, as did many cities in Spain until the Spanish high court declared the bans unconstitutional earlier this year. Canada prohibits the wearing of veils during citizenship ceremonies, while British politicians are discussing restrictions on headscarves and veils in schools and in courts.

In a celebrated case in London last month, a burqa-wearing woman was ordered to raise her veil while giving evidence on the grounds that having a witness conceal her face while testifying was inconsistent with the principles of British justice. She was permitted to keep her veil lowered during the rest of the proceedings.

Europe and the West aren't the only regions grappling with these questions. In Morocco, veils and headscarves are discouraged, and Tunisia only recently relaxed its ban on wearing them. Syria banned the full-face veil for university students in 2010 – but President Bashar al-Assad rescinded the ban the following year when he sought to appease religious conservatives as the country slid into civil war.

Arguments for banning or restricting the traditional headwear range from security at airports to concerns about divisiveness and perceived polarization of society to preserving the religious neutrality of the state.

A Woman's Perspective

Much of the negativity about headscarves and veils comes from a lack of understanding about what they mean and why women choose wear them, says Shalina Litt, a popular Muslim radio presenter in Birmingham, England, who lectures and blogs about women's rights and Islamic issues and wears the niqab herself. "For me," she says, "it is an expression of faith, and modesty is a part of that. At the same time, I live in the real world. When I go to an airport and it is time to show my ID, I lift my veil—whether it is to a man or a woman—and just get on with it. That's life. Those security rules are in place to protect us all, and there is nothing in the teaching of Islam that says we shouldn't go along with those rules."

Wearing the veil can be surprisingly empowering, says Litt. In recalling how she adopted the niqab gradually over time, moving from loose-fitting clothing to a headscarf to occasionally wearing the niqab to becoming a full-time wearer as her relationship with her faith evolved, she spoke of the first time she sat down to talk with a man while wearing the veil: "I thought: Wow! This is liberating. He is having to listen to my words, not judge me by my clothes or my face, but paying attention purely to what I have to say."