Hijab in Turkey

Hijab in Turkey

In this article, we shall discuss the politics of the hijab in Turkey, and how this issue fits within international relations. The headscarf debate in Turkey has been a highly politicized one as secularists and Islamists have argued over whether the women should be able to wear the Islamic headscarf in public buildings, which include public schools, courthouses, government buildings, public universities, etc…

Here, we will discuss the history of the debate regarding the hijab in Turkey. We will look at the early history of Turkey during the time of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decades after his death, and then, more recently in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and in the recent years. As we shall see, the question of whether women can wear the hijab in public buildings in Turkey is viewed as a question of politics, and the advancement of religion in a secular-based society (and constitution), compared to others who argue on the ability to wear the headscarf as an importance right of religious freedom.

History of the Hijab in Turkey

It is said that upwards of seventy percent of women in Turkey wear the Islamic headscarf. Historically, the hijab in Turkey has been viewed differently, depending on the leadership in power. For example, during the Ottoman Empire, Sultans established laws calling for the veiling, and also restricting some clothing that they found ‘UnIslamic.” A shift on the state’s position of the hijab in Turkey took place following the end of World War I and the rise of Ataturk to power. Mustafa Kemal, a staunch secularist, saw the hijab as “backward,” and not in line with his ideas of a “modern” Turkey (Vojdik, 2010). Ataturk did recommend the hijab not be worn, although he did not go so far as to make it a national law to ban the headscarf. Some local governments did however try to ban the wearing of the headscarf in Turkey.

Over time, as the Islamists and secularists contested for power, the hijab in Turkey became a focal point in how they wanted Turkey to be politically, and with regards to Islam in society. As more people were moving to Istanbul from the rural areas, the hijab began to become a political issue in Turkey’s largest city. In 1982, following rising tensions between a secular government and Islamist groups, in 1982, the government called for a ban to the headscarf in public office buildings, which included universities. This act, while supported by secularists, was staunchly challenged by those calling for religious freedoms, and also by currents wanting more Islam in government and in Turkish society. 

Because of this, universities were places were the ban’s politicization became more noticeable. For example, “In the mid-1980s, female university students in Istanbul began challenging the ban, arguing that it violated their right to religious freedom.51 These young women participated in protests and demonstrations at universities and hunger strikes to persuade state officials to eliminate the ban. In response, the Higher Education Council twice re- moved restrictions on wearing the headscarf, in 1989 and 1991. The Turk- ish Constitutional Court, however, annulled both repeal attempts, holding on March 7, 1989 that secularism was an essential condition for democracy and that, “[i]n a secular regime, religion is shielded from a political role” (Vojdik, 2010: 668-669).

The Constitutional Court defended its position by saying that “The headscarf and the particular style of clothing that accompanies it, which lacks a modern appearance, is not an exemption but a tool of segregation. . . . This situation, which is the display of a pre-modern image, is increasingly becoming widespread and this is unacceptable in terms of the principles of secularism, reformism and the Republic. Using democratic principles to challenge secularism is the abuse of freedom of religion.” (in Vojdik, 2010: 669).

Leyla Şahin Case

The issue of the hijab in Turkey increased in publicity in 1998, when a medical student by the name of Leyla Şahin was unable to take her medical examinations because she wore the hijab in the university (Istanbul University), and did not follows calls to take the headscarf off. Then, a Vojdik (2010) notes, “Because she refused to comply with the dress code and remove her headscarf, the univer- sity brought disciplinary proceedings against her and issued a warning.58 Later, she participated in an unauthorized assembly outside the dean’s office at the university to protest against the headscarf ban.59 The dean of the faculty began disciplinary proceedings against the students who joined the assembly and suspended S ̧ahin for a semester.60 S ̧ahin applied to the Istanbul Administrative Court for an order quashing the suspension, but it was dismissed.61 The Supreme Administrative Court subsequently held that it was unnecessary to examine the merits of her appeal” (669).

As a result of an inability to get justice within Turkey, Şahin then decided to take her complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Here, she said that the Turkish government’s actions were a violation of Article 9 of the ECHR, which calls for the freedom of religion. 

However, to the surprise of many, in 2004, the European Court of Human Rights said that Turkey did not go against Article 9 since the state could place restrictions on the Article in the name of “public safety” for “public order,” among other reasons. Many have felt that their interpretation of hijab in Turkey was not from a position of religious freedom, but rather, the court viewed the hijab as a threatening political symbol.  As Vojdik (2010) notes: “In its decision, the Court deferred to the judgment of Turkish Constitutional Court and state officials as to the alleged threat the headscarf posed to its secular democracy. The Grand Chamber found that the headscarf is a “powerful external symbol” that “appeared to be imposed on women by a religious precept that was hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality” (670). To the Grand Chamber, this was not an individual who freely wore the Islamic headscarf, which led to further frustrations, since this argument is one that many feel completely misunderstands the reasons why women choose to wear the hijab.

The AKP and the Hijab in Turkey

In 1999, Turkish politician Merve Kavakci was booed and told to leave the parliament building after she went in wearing a hijab. This incident further highlighted the lack of freedom of religion in Turkey, and the secular position against having the hijab visible in public, political buildings. Yet, in the following decade, the rise of the AKP party (in 2001) ushered in a renewed push of the hijab in Turkey as a central point for the new government. Since coming to power, the AKP attempted to reverse the state’s position on the hijab.

For example, in 2007, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was re-elected in Turkey. For the Islamist group, they made the hijab in Turkey a central part of their message, speaking on the issue as one of high importance as it relates to human rights. So, in 2008, the AKP, while in parliament, voted to repeal the previous ban on the hijab in public buildings. However, “These amendments were immediately chal- lenged by the secularist party (“CHP”). The Turkish Constitutional Court subsequently voted 9-2 that the constitutional amendments ending the ban were unlawful on the grounds that they violated the constitutional principle of secularism” (Vojdik, 2010: 671).

However, then, in 2010, the AKP government leadership made a statement in which they said they would support any student who was told to leave school for wearing a hijab. As the BBC (2010) noted: “with the momentum behind him after winning the constitutional referendum in September and more compliant bureaucrats in the Board of Education, the government in effect ended the ban by stealth.”

Then, in 2013, as part of a series of democratic reform initiatives the AKP also ended a ban on the hijab in Turkey for public officials. Here, “Female civil servants are now allowed to wear headscarves, while their male counterparts can sport beards. However, the ban remain[ed] in place for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel” (Al Jazeera, 2013). The 2013 changes were important since the new allowances went against previous laws, and discrimination against women who wanted to wear the hijab in Turkey. Then, 2015 marked the first time a judge wore the hijab while hearing a case; “Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) had lifted the ban on female judges and prosecutors wearing the Islamic headscarf just ahead of the June parliamentary election” (The Tribune, 2015).


As we can see, the issue of the hijab in Turkey was one that divided civil society in Turkey. For the secularists, they felt the hijab was a symbol of political Islam, whereas for others, the ability to wear the hijab in Turkey is essential for overall human rights. This issue continues to be highly debated in other countries such as Europe where lawmakers in France and Switzerland are attempting to place bans on the hijab and the niqab.

Hijab in Turkey References

Al Jazeera (2013). Turkey lifts decades-old ban on headscarves. Al Jazeera. 8 October 2013. Available Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/10/turkey-lifts-decades-old-ban-headscarves-201310814177943704.html 

BBC (2010). Quiet End to Turkey’s College Headscarf Ban. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11880622

Bleiberg, B.D. (2005). Unveiling the Real Issue: Evaluating the European Court of Human Rights’ Decision to Enforce the Turkish Headscarf Ban in Leyla Sahin v. Turkey. Cornell Law Review, pages 129-169.

The Express Tribune (2015). In first, headscarf-wearing judge conducts trial in Turkey. The Express Tribune. November 4, 2015. Available Online: http://tribune.com.pk/story/985034/in-first-headscarf-wearing-judge-conducts-trial-in-turkey/ 

Vojdik, V.K. (2010). Politics of the Headscarf in Turkey: Masculinities, Feminism, and the Construction of Collective Identities. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender. Vol. 33, pages 661-685.


Leave a Reply