Today's date:
Spring 2008

Woman's Turban Is Sign of Rebellion Against Ataturk

Halit Refig, one of Turkey's leading intellectuals, is a filmmaker/screenwriter whose films include Four Women in the Hare and Island of the Dogs. He is also on the board of NPQ-Turkey.

Istanbul -- The headscarf controversy is taking the place of PKK terrorism and Kurdish separatism as the most contentious issue in Turkish political life.

Civil disobedience is replacing bloody terrorism, which seems to have lost its initiative since the aerial bombings of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) camps in northern Iraq.

The new militants against the state order are not armed men but girls with covered heads who refuse to obey the rules of university education because of their religious faith. But the target is the same: Turkish central state power established under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

These rebellious girls do not cover their heads with the traditional Turkish headscarf. For this reason, it is given the distinctive name "turban." It is a kind of uniform.

Turkey didn't have such a turban problem until the 1980s. Indeed, there was no headscarf problem in Turkey until the Khomeini revolution in Iran, when black-covered women crowded the public squares of Tehran. Some bright minds in Turkey decided to apply the same tactics, using women and female students against the state under the pretext of democracy and individual rights.

In 1982, for the first time, Istanbul University authorities declared that female students covering their heads and wearing the so-called turban would not be accepted in classes. Since then, the headscarf-turban has been a continuing issue of controversy.

A milestone case was the 1999 elections. A turbaned candidate named Merve Kavakci, who was living in the United States, won parliamentary elections. But a majority of parliamentarians refused to allow her to stay in the parliament if she insisted on wearing a turban.

Kavakci went back to America, where she is still trying to behave like a Muslim Joan of Arc. Because of her, many people in Turkey believe that the turban is somehow an American conspiracy aimed at undermining Turkish power.

The problem is much more complicated and deeper than it appears. Until the '80s, Turkey was an agricultural country with most of its population living in rural areas. Steady industrialization, however, stimulated migration from rural areas to urban centers. Now Turkey is an industrial country with 70 percent of its population living in cities -- even though many were born in the countryside.

Democracy has given these people the chance of being the dominant social group. Wearing the turban is one way of expressing their new power. It has become a kind of solidarity uniform of young countryside people, defying established urban rules instead of adapting to the metropolitan way of life.

Although defenders of the turban claim that it is an expression of Islamic faith, non-political Islamic scholars and theologians insist there is not such strict rule of head covering in Islam. In fact, it is part of Christian theology. Here are some references from Saint Paul's First Letter to Corinthians in the Holy Bible:

-- "But I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ; in turn the head of woman is the man; in turn the head of Christ is God." (11:3)

-- "For if a woman does not cover herself, let her also be shorn; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered." (11:6)

-- "For a man ought not to have his head covered; as he is God's image and glory; but the woman is man's glory." (11:7)

-- "For man is not out of woman, but woman out of man." (11:8)

-- "And, what is more, man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of man." (11:9)

-- "That is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority upon her head because of angels." (11:10)

There is no such stricture to a woman covering her head in Islam's holy book, the Koran. The Koran says that believing women should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms. (24:30, 31).

Unlike Christianity, there is no Church in Islam, no clergy class, no nuns. To be a Muslim, it is enough to accept that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his Messenger. The rest is between the believer and God. There is no authority that will decide who is a good Muslim and who is not. Since God has given intelligence to human beings, Muslims are responsible directly to God, with no one in between. That is, in general, the Turkish way of being Muslim.

So covering a woman's head with nun-like headscarves is not going back to Islamic fundamentals, but to a rootless imitation of Christian nuns!

Nobody should have anything to say about the way one chooses to live his or her private life. It is the same for a woman's choice of what she wears. But when that choice becomes a political act against laws and rules, it also becomes a betrayal of the essence of Islam. In that case, it is not a matter of Islamic faith but a cover for the political aims of destroying the state structure in Turkey.

The present-day political power of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is based on the new urban social group. Putting turbans on their women's heads is a strategy of establishing political dominance. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul are the chief representatives, with their covered wives, of the rebellion against Ataturk's republic. This is the result of democracy.

What is next? It is not easy to guess. The armed forces have always been central to maintaining the order of the Kemalist state. Until now, they haven't shown any noticeable reaction. But how far can they be pushed? Can we say a final goodbye to Ataturk and his nation/state, or will there be an inescapable breaking point at which time they come out of the barracks?