Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey: The Veil Is A Symbol Of The Rise Of Islamism

Istanbul, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Before dispersing for the summer recess last Friday, Turkey's Parliament announced April 18 as the date for early parliamentary elections, a poll which by all accounts is expected to be won by the Islamist Virtue party.

On the same day, Parliament passed an "anti-fundamentalist" bill requiring prior permission for the construction of mosques.

Muslim houses of worship in recent years have been mushrooming in new, largely unregulated urban sprawl. The regulatory bill was opposed by the Islamist Virtue party and its erstwhile conservative ally, the True Path party of former prime minister Tansu Ciller.

Another newly passed bill that has the potential for being used against Islamist protesters bars demonstrators from carrying emblems or signs of illegal organizations, wearing "uniforms or uniform-like clothing" or "disguising their identity by wearing masks."

These measures were approved amid the growing dispute over the right of female students to wear head scarves when taking university exams. The dispute has pitted the Supreme Board of Higher Education, backed by the military and the minority government of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, against the Islamists, Turkey's largest socio-political movement.

Day after day from May through July, Turkish TV showed female students being denied access to exams because their heads were covered.

The head scarf debate goes to the heart of the current tensions within Turkish urban society and represents a struggle between European-oriented Turks, who make up some 10 percent of the country's population, and Turks who are Anatolian by culture and tradition.

Many members of the Euro-Turkish elite, particularly in Istanbul, boast of their "Rumelian" roots back to forebears who came from Ottoman Turkey's territories in the Balkans. They feel threatened by the growing presence and political power of the new migrants. But many "Rumelians" also fear what they say is the all too likely specter of a military intervention if the Islamists win next April's elections.

Istanbul currently has a population of about 10 million, with an additional 400,000 migrants from the Anatolian hinterlands arriving every year. A public debate is now underway over whether to restrict future migration to Istanbul by issuing internal visas. Ankara, Izmir and other cities are experiencing similarly explosive population growth.

These first generation urban dwellers have thrown their support behind the Islamist movement, perhaps out of tradition, a sense of alienation or a sense of community and commonalty with other new arrivals.

Large numbers of newly urbanized women are donning head coverings known as "turban" draped over their hair and shoulders. They also wear a long gown that looks much like a rather shapeless raincoat in what has become as much a political statement as a social one. Women who wear the head scarves and raincoats generally claim they do so out of tradition -- a reference to the Islamic "hijab" which required women to cover their hair, shoulders and the form of their body so as to preserve their virtue.

The Turkish sociologist Nilufer Gole, a leading authority on Women and Islamism, notes the choice of colors and patterns used in contemporary head scarves is in marked contrast to traditional black chadors.

"These young girls -- it is a very hybrid form when you look at their silhouette. It is not like traditional bell-formed feminine, mystical, oriental women. They have high, large shoulders with shoulder pads. They look much more triangular as the competitive western ladies, professional forces. And they have this cover, a sort of raincoat or cover which also has this form -- very modern. The fabric is different, very modern. The colors are not at all traditional colors. So you don't have the traditional Muslim women defining their identity by their domestic lives, but you have future professionals, future intellectuals and already at the university campus sharing the same classrooms, the same buses with boys, with male students which is again not very traditionally Muslim."

Gole notes that young women generally start covering their heads only after they start going to university. She says this confirms the urban nature of the Islamist movement of what she calls "newly educated social groups and generations, recently urbanized and politically modern."

Gole has pointed out that while every revolution seeks to define the ideal man, Turkey's Kemalist revolution 75 years ago made the image of the ideal woman the symbol of reforms.

She says the modernist elites -- the military and the government -- believed that bringing women into the public sphere necessitated "taking off the veil." Women faced a radical choice -- either be Western or Muslim. The military and government clearly advocated the ideals of women being "civilized, emancipated and modern". But Gole says the majority of Turkish women have created hybrid forms in their daily practice of religion, traditional conservatism and modern aspirations.

They have also adopted Islamism -- a socio-political movement, currently led by the Virtue party, the successor to the Welfare party.

The military engineered the ouster from power of Welfare in June of last year. Then last January, the constitutional court banned Welfare for allegedly threatening the secular constitution. The court also barred Welfare's leader, former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, from political leadership for five years.

The military has not hesitated to intervene in the past to suppress perceived threats. The military seized control in 1960, 1974 and 1980. The military perceives Islamism as a threat to the fundamentals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular state.

Earlier this year, the military convened a meeting with the cabinet and the country's university rectors to ensure that female students would not be admitted to exams if their heads were covered.

In late June, Deputy Chief of Staff General Cevik Bir told a group of MPs that Turkey's primary domestic threat is still "fundamentalism," -- the military's byword for Islamism. Bir said that a public opinion survey ordered by the General Staff had shown that the Virtue Party is the most popular party. A few days later, Prime Minister Yilmaz responded by urging the military to stay out of party politics. Yilmaz insisted it is primarily the duty of the government to deal with what he called "fundamentalism."

The following day, General Bir's immediate superior, the Chief of Staff, General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, issued a written statement backing up his deputy. Karadayi said that "fundamentalist ideology which aims to establish a state based on religious law, is the most serious threat to the democratic, secular and social legal state."

He said, the military is obliged to protect the existing constitutional system while staying out of party politics," adding that the military will continue to consider its prime duty to be fighting both "internal and external threats."