Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Unveiling the Veil Ban Dilemma: Turkey and Beyond

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Unveiling the Veil Ban Dilemma: Turkey and Beyond

Article excerpt

This article examines Turkey's veil ban policy, which has been in place since the 1980s. The dilemma is whether Muslim-veil bans impinge on the rights of expression and religion at both national and international levels or, whether states may legally justify a ban on the basis of secularism and women's rights. Even though the idea of freedom "from religion" in Turkey has been closely linked to the European notion of secularism during most of Turkey's republican history, more recently, secularism and veil bans in Turkey and in the West have been construed quite distinctly. This shows an increasing gap between European and Turkey's politics and values.

Keywords: Human rights, Muslim-veils, secularism, Turkey, women's rights.

Introduction

Scholars and practitioners of international law have recognized the obstacles that human rights must overcome to conflate individual and collective rights into a cohesive system. More specifically, the collective nature of freedom of religion has been problematic (Chirkin 2007). Religious identity is acquired within communities, but the post-World War II international human rights regime initially placed greater importance on individuals as the locus of human rights. Moreover, the universality of basic individual human rights proclaimed in treaties and declarations has also been challenged by religious practices and regional conventions.

This article examines how freedom of religion is interpreted at state and international levels, using the example of Turkey's veil ban. The issue here is whether Muslim-veil bans impinge on the rights of freedom of expression and religion, or whether states may legally justify a ban on the basis of secularism and women's rights. The requirement to wear Muslim veils as an expression of religious identity is in itself highly controversial. Some Muslim theologians argue that the Qur'an requires women to be modest and not to provoke men by their appearance, and that modesty does not always translate into covering one's head, full-body and face. This explains why there is such a great variation in Muslim veiling even among Muslim conservatives around the world. Although it is outside the scope of this work to discuss whether veiling is a requirement under Islamic law, the fact that there is such a debate is noteworthy because it underlines different ways to interpret and reinforce what both sides of the debate claim to be their struggle for freedom of religion. To illustrate these controversies, this article examines the case of Leyla Sahin, a medical student at the University of Istanbul, who went to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to challenge a veil ban in Istanbul's university. As a Muslim woman, she claimed that the university policy-and Turkish laws-violated her rights of freedom of expression and religion. (1)

The first section of this article examines general current trends on the protection of basic human rights and analyzes the universality of human rights and its problems, using as appropriate examples for this case, the European and Arab human rights agreements. A second section examines the historical evolution of secularism in Turkey since its origins during the 1920s until recent years and illustrates how this concept has been vaguely defined by political authorities. This has given court decisions ample room to construe the meaning of secularism and veil bans in Turkey. The third and last section analyzes the interpretation of Turkey's veil bans at the international (European) level and examines European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions on Turkey's veil bans, including the case of university student Leyla Sahin. This discussion is significant because even though the idea of secularism and freedom "from religion" had been closely identified with the European notion of secularism since Turkey became a republic, more recently, policies of secularism and veil bans in Turkey, as compared to Western Europe, are being construed quite distinctly. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.