What a Headscarf Can Mean

It can be a little wisp of fabric, nothing more. It comes in longer versions, shorter versions, versions that cover the hair, others that cover the face. According to Le Monde, you can even get a Viennese stylist to design one in the manner of “Catherine Zeta-Jones and Naomi Campbell,” with a whiff of supermodel glamour.

But whatever shape it takes and whatever you want to call it, the political controversy surrounding the scarves that many (though not all) Muslim women use to cover their heads will not go away. Banned in French schools and some German state institutions, the headscarf has just reemerged at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit, one that could, if successful, bring down the Turkish government.

Brought by the chief prosecutor of Turkey, the lawsuit — to put it bluntly and briefly — accuses the ruling party of violating Turkey’s constitution and proposes to evict its leaders, including the prime minister and the president, from politics altogether. The central point of this sticky legal clash between the “secularism” of the Turkish constitution and the “will of the nation,” as the ruling party calls it (or the “dictatorship of the majority,” in the words of Turkey’s chief prosecutor), is the headscarf: Last February, the government lifted a long-standing ban on wearing them at universities, and secular Turks are furious.

This kind of controversy is not entirely new to Turkey, where political parties have been banned in the past (and prime ministers hanged in the more distant past) for insufficient secularism. What strikes me as important this time around is the enduring significance, once again, of that simple piece of cloth.

To outsiders, the issue usually seems petty (the International Herald Tribune headlined its editorial “Much ado about headscarves”). Those with an Anglo-American bias — myself included — have often been persuaded that the issue is one of personal liberty: A headscarf should be a matter of “choice.” But if politicians are grandstanding about headscarves, maybe that’s because headscarves, at least in Turkey and a few other places, are political symbols and not purely a matter of religious “choices.”

Fairly or not, in certain Turkish communities, a head covering marks the wearer not just as faithful but also as a believer in a particular version of Islam. Fairly or not, the headscarf carries with it, at least in Turkey, partisan connotations as well as a suggestion of the wearer’s views of women. The political scientist Zeyno Baran pointed out to me that most of the wives of the Turkish political leadership wear headscarves; that most of them donned the scarves after their marriages; and that most of them never worked or studied again after that. You can see why women who want something different might feel threatened.

In fact, the Turkish ban was first instituted in the 1980s precisely to protect bareheaded women, as well as the secular students who wanted to remain so. For about 20 years, the ban was relatively successful too. After a few initial protests, it was widely accepted — how else can a deeply divided society survive, unless it creates zones of neutrality? — at least until the current government tried to get rid of it again this year.

For the record, the French headscarf ban — though widely mocked when instituted in 2004 — is at the moment considered a great success, too, at least by the French government. Droves of girls did not drop out of school, as was predicted. Every year, French officials say, there are fewer conflicts over the issue. Over time, they argue, Muslim girls will find it easier to integrate into French society, too.

None of which is to say that Turkey’s supreme court can or should oust the government: I’ll let Turkey’s lawyers fight that one out. But if they try to do so, let’s not pretend it’s unimportant. And if, someday, this argument comes to our shores, let’s not be surprised, either.

In the end, the headscarf debate isn’t about a wisp of fabric but about the viability of secular Islam itself.

Scroll to Top