Today's date:
Spring 2008

Secularism Is a Women's Affair

Nilufer Göle, the Turkish-born author of The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling, is professor of sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Paris -- Now that Turkey's parliament has voted to lift the ban on women wearing headscarves in universities, secularism has become a women's affair, a women's quarrel. But it is a quarrel that matters greatly beyond Turkey as well because, in the Muslim context of modernity, women have been the makers of democratic public space.

In voting for new legislation to lift the ban, the parliament, dominated by the Justice and Development Party, which sprang from Islamist roots, has reignited passions that have deeply polarized public opinion since the 1980s, when the ban was first enacted. As the most visible symbol of Islamization, the headscarf has for three decades represented the most important threat to secularism and gender equality -- two values most cherished by Turks devoted to the heritage of Ataturk's republican modernity.

The headscarf conflates in a single symbol both personal piousness and public assertion of Islamic difference. Such powerful emotions are released by this symbol precisely because it is very difficult to distinguish its religious from its cultural and political meanings.

The wearing of the headscarf in universities signals not only changing private and public distinctions but also the entry of religion into the public arena. Moreover, since headscarf proponents argue that it will enhance the opportunities of women in higher education, it also serves as a critique of the idea that only secularism equals modernity.

Women proponents of the headscarf distance themselves from secular models of feminist emancipation, but they also seek autonomy from male interpretations of Islamic precepts. They want access to secular education so they can follow new paths in life that don't conform to traditional gender roles, yet they also seek to fashion a new pious self. They are searching for ways to become Muslim and modern at the same time, transforming both.

In short, the established meaning of Islamic veiling is undergoing a radical transformation -- from a symbol of Muslim female submission and seclusion in the private sphere to a badge of public, assertive Muslim womanhood. A sign of stigma and inferiority is in the process of being inverted into a sign of empowerment and prestige.

This transformation not only challenges secular conceptions of female emancipation but also the conceptions of Muslim men who identify the veil with submission to their authority.

Public demonstrations against the legislation that were initiated by women's organizations have shown the other female face -- that of secularism in Turkey. The secularism that has been implemented as a principle of the republican state founded by Ataturk was often considered as a "top-down" ideology, foreign in its roots (inspired by French "laicite") and protected by the power of the military.

That notion of secularism has been transformed into a grass-roots value, defended by women marching in the streets in the huge demonstrations that have gathered millions of participants and spread out from one city to another (including, during the summer of 2007, against the candidacy of Abdullah Gul as president because of his Muslim background and his covered wife).

The debate over the headscarf is also putting secularism to the democratic test, exposing the disagreements between liberal and authoritarian secularists.

While the hard-line secularists call for the restoration of order, if necessary with military power, the liberals resist the idea that secular militarism and republican nationalism ought to be the instrument that rescues Turkey from the democratic will of the people.

The liberals, whose aim is to enlarge democratic rights and freedom of expression, have given their support to the previous democratic reforms pursued by the AKP government as part of Turkey's path to membership within the European Union. However, those who were expecting a package of laws that would have guaranteed freedom of expression -- for example, by eliminating the law against "insulting Turkishness" -- now feel deceived that the proposed constitutional changes are for now limited to lifting the ban on headscarves.

Although the new legislation is not based upon religious arguments, but rather on arguments against discrimination in equal access to higher education and in conformity with the European norms and freedom of dress codes, in the end it could not overcome the politics of fear and suspicion.

For this reason, some suspect the end of the ban is only the first step in an escalation of Muslim claims and that the headscarf will spread beyond the universities to the public schools, parliament, the civil service and professions. They also a fear that the headscarf, once legitimized, will be forced upon "unveiled" students, especially in Anatolian universities.

Once secularists are reduced to a minority position of influence, many worry, women's rights will not be respected but trampled by the rising tide of conservative religious culture down the road.

None of these arguments can be dismissed in light of the rise of political Islam and its compulsory strictures in Turkey's neighboring countries.

However, as we are discovering in this new challenge to the authoritarian, top-down vision of modernization, history is not about social engineering. The promise of democracy is that it opens up new opportunities by enhancing dialogue and debate among diverse and competing interests. But the sustainability of democracy requires overcoming the politics of fear and suspicion.

A democratically elected parliament has ended the ban on headscarves, but the battle continues between two sets of values, two Turkeys, two kinds of women, veiled and unveiled.

Since Turkey's identity is now inextricably tied to the role of women in society, only women coming together to define what modernity means for them can overcome the politics of fear that stands between us and a future of gender equality, vital cultural pluralism and enduring democracy.