Why worry about headscarf issue in Turkey?

Why worry about headscarf issue in Turkey?

Does anyone recall the news last month of the government decree changing the regulation on the dress code in public schools, allowing girls as young as 10 years old to attend classes wearing headscarves?

It is already history. In a country like ours with such a huge agenda, where even as journalists we have trouble keeping pace with developments, this should not be so surprising.

Indeed, it has become the government’s trick to use Turkey’s loaded agenda to introduce controversial changes in order to avoid any substantial debate.

But this is an issue worth keeping on the agenda, especially at a time when we are terrified to see people voluntarily joining Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a barbaric organization that in my eyes does not in any way approach any concept related to Islam.

The headscarf issue is a very complex one, especially in a conservative country like Turkey.

Years ago, a taxi driver told me that his daughter, who lived in a small village, had decided to cover her head. “Her husband is a military official. He leaves for duties that take him away from home for weeks. She thought she would be safer this way, to protect her honor,” he said. She was not forced to it by her husband; it was her own decision.

According to this line of thinking, women who are not wearing a headscarf are potentially more open to sexual assault. It is not so much about Islam dictating that it must be worn, but rather about how it is perceived by society.

So, if a woman in her 20’s can think like that, we can assume that there are still many conservative fathers in Turkey who won’t let their daughters leave the house unless their head is covered. Indeed, this is a reality in Turkey, but the problem is that we don’t know the numbers. There are no statistics to tell us how many families have refrained from sending their daughters to school because they had to go with their head uncovered.

What is clear is that this is not a number one priority problem in the Turkish education system.

“If they want it, children should be able to come to school with their heads covered. The only thing that matters is for girls to come to school. Nothing is more important than that,” said İbrahim Betil, a highly respected figure known for his work in education, two years ago.

However, no one is convinced that the main motivation of the government in the recent regulations is to have more girls in school. Rather, the motivation lies in what Turkey’s current president said a while ago when he was still prime minister: “We want to raise religious generations.” The younger the indoctrination starts, the better it is.

Supporters of the ruling party present this issue as one of religious freedom. Indeed, a university student is of age to decide whether or not she will cover her head, but for a 10-year-old girl this is not a free will choice.

“My problem with the freedoms argument is this: Freedoms have been extended for only a particular group of people in Turkey for the past five or six years. If they had said, ‘we will let girls wear headscarves, and we also won’t mind about the length of their skirt or tattoos,’ then this would have looked differently,” another education expert told me. On the contrary, the decree that lifted the ban on headscarves also bans make-up, tattoos and piercings.

“What the government does or does not do along with lifting the ban on headscarf is also very important,” the same expert said. While there has been much emphasis on religious education, not much has been done on providing good quality education that equips students with critical thinking. Too much emphasis on religious courses without complementing them with critical thinking will end up raising dogmatic generations.

A close friend of mine lives in a small city in the heart of Anatolia. One day recently, her daughter came in running with tears in her eyes: “Mum, apparently you will burn in hell because you are not wearing a headscarf.” This is what you hear after your kid attends compulsory religious courses.

If the education system is not reformed and the content of religious courses is not changed, instead of “religious” generations preaching for peace we will see more and more extremists, which will be of no use either to Turkey or to the world.