The Nature of the Headscarf
Controversy in Turkey
We humans have more potential for hatred when the
object of our hatred is part of our own identity.
ANDRES STADLER, May 20091
Turkey is the only country where students who wear headscarves are not allowed to attend universities. The headscarf debate has broad implications for Turkey, dating back to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, when the state heavily regulated the clothing of citizens as a sign of ethnic and professional identity. In Turkey, clothing has always been a political tool that expresses power relations and has important social, economic, and legal consequences. The new post–Ottoman Turkish Republic inherited this preoccupation as it transformed itself into a nation-state with a secular “Kemalist” ideology, named after Kemal Ataturk, the inspirational founder of the modern Turkish state. Ataturk’s reforms in the 1920s represented a historically unique and significant attempt to make Turkey modern, European, and Western as quickly as possible. Moreover, before, during, and after the transformation period women became a barometer of modernity. In this sense, women became more important than men as a representation of the state and society. This importance became a visible obligation for women as soon as the Turkish state declared itself to be a Western-oriented modern, secular society.
The historical background is an important part of understanding the Turkish state and its relation to the complex, current headscarf controversy. The battle over the headscarf, unfolding over the course of almost a half century, provides a symbolic battleground and illustrative case for assessing