The Cable

Turkish Women Can Now Wear Headscarves in Military

Proponents say it’s overdue. Opponents say it’s all too soon.


On Wednesday, Turkish state media announced that its country’s military will lift its ban on headscarves.

The Turkish army is often viewed as a last stronghold of the secularism that marked the birth of the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Secularism in the Turkish sense is, as Michael Reynolds of Princeton University told Foreign Policy “radically different” from secularism elsewhere. “It’s not separation of church and state,” he said, but rather “putting religion under control of the state.” The ban on headscarves in public institutions was put in place in the 1980s.

The military was the last holdout. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been president since 2014, after a decade as prime minister before that. His party has fought to reintroduce religion into society and roll back much of Ataturk’s secular legacy ever since.

Erdogan’s critics say that the lifting of the headscarf ban is proof Erdogan is imposing Islam on society. Last April, the speaker of Turkey’s Parliament called for a religious constitution. This provoked outrage from secular segments of society, which have seen secular safeguards removed before (regional expert Sarabrynn Hudgins notes that, for example, the national Religious Affairs Directorate declared New Years’ celebrations illegitimate, and said, “Erdogan has personally made scalding condemnations of social media and women working outside the home, calling childless women ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete'”). But those individuals were in turn assured that secularism would stay.

Erdogan and his supporters, in contrast, say the headscarf ban was an illiberal holdover from the days of forced secularism. Either way, the headscarf ban was lifted on university campuses (per Hudgins, the second secular safeguard) in 2010; in state institutions in 2013; in high schools in 2014; and in the police force, women have been able to wear headscarves since last year, as have civilian personnel in the military.

And now, per defense ministry decree, women serving in the military may wear headscarves under their caps and berets so long as they match and do not cover their faces.

Erdogan may have another opportunity to further political Islam this spring: This coming April, there is to be a referendum on constitutional reform that, if passed, would expand the president’s powers.

There is, of course, another potential outcome. Reynolds told FP that, while it’s possible that the tides turn such that women become required to wear headscarves in the military, so, too, could the allowance of women to do so paradoxically subvert Islam. A headscarf, he said, underscores the difference between a man and a woman. “Now,” however, “you’re putting women in the armed forces, they’re wearing headscarves, you’re effectively saying — there isn’t that much difference between a woman in the military in a headscarf and a man.”

Update, Feb. 22 2017, 2:58 pm ET: This piece was updated to include comment from Michael Reynolds.

Update, Feb. 22, 3:53 pm ET: This piece was update to include comment from Sarabrynn Hudgins.

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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