The Turkish government’s Official Gazette published Aug. 27 a new ruling according to which female police officers serving with the Turkish National Police are now allowed to wear headscarves as part of their uniform.
The ruling came into force immediately. On Aug. 30, Turkey's Victory Day, the photographs of a policewoman at Taksim Square in Istanbul and of a female officer who was part of the team guarding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the official celebrations in Ankara appeared in the media.
Though this move has not caused the usual amount of brouhaha — as was the case in the past with similar amendments related to headscarves in public places — it did not go unnoticed. Many critics continue to accuse the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of changing the nature of Turkey’s secular state, while government supporters scorn the “authoritarian secularist mentality” and celebrate further relaxations of the earlier headscarf bans as more religious freedom.
Polarized reactions overwhelmed social media networks, as many users posted angry messages reflecting the usual paranoia that Turkey is becoming Iran. Tweets included examples of photos from different countries showing heavily armed women with face or head coverings, or policewomen hitting women’s rights activists. Supporters of the government’s move responded. One user mocked the critics claiming their minds are stuck in 1980, asking why Turkey would want to be Iran. Another user, in a similarly defying fashion to the critics, posted a photo of policewomen with headscarves in Western countries, sarcastically emphasizing that these countries are more hospitable to practicing Muslim women than Turkey’s secularists.
Among politicians, many opposition deputies expressed their disapproval. The deputy leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Veli Agbaba, accused the AKP of passing amendments such as these “to continue implementing its politics and its own secret agenda.” Agbaba said that a bigger problem for the police is how not to be sent to their deaths or work 20 hours a day with five hours of sleep, while citing more problems, which, as he claims, cannot be solved with a headscarf. Similarly, another deputy from the CHP, Kazim Arslan, asked whether people of different beliefs or views, with broken hopes for justice, would from now on be able to feel safe in the hands of a police officer, prosecutor or judge wearing a headscarf.
In light of the debate on the impartiality of policewomen wearing headscarves, daily Hurriyet’s writer Mehmet Yilmaz noted that the police can never be impartial because the nature of the job is to represent the “established order.” Yilmaz fears that in countries like Turkey — which he calls half democratic — “one duty of the police is to spread fear to those the government dislikes.” Most often, the response to the impartiality argument is that one can never know someone’s biases based only on clothes and external appearance. In contrast, Ahmet Hakan, also a columnist for daily Hurriyet, wrote in defense of the government’s move: “Let us focus on the way the headscarf-wearing policewoman does her job and not on the scarf on her head.”
But suggested meritocracy works best in societies where there are sanctions for nepotism and no tolerance for favoritism shown on any basis other than ability or talent. Unfortunately, throughout history, the opposite has been true for Turkey. The state has always been an overwhelming giant whose institutions did not protect all citizens, but primarily the interests of the ruling group. So not only are there notoriously low documented levels of mutual trust between people, Turkey’s secular population and the more practicing segments of the Muslim population have always been competing to promote one’s own interests and excluding the other.
As result, a mentality of prohibition out of fear has been a norm in Turkish politics since the founding of the Turkish Republic. Harsh suppression of religion in public space has been one of the most traumatic manifestations of such a mindset, and the headscarf has been the most politicized and abused tool, its authoritarian ban in public places notwithstanding. That said, Erdogan and the AKP have worked hard to undo this element of secularist legacy.
The government’s latest regulation related to policewomen is part of the democratization package, which the AKP passed in 2013. In 2010, Turkey lifted a ban on the wearing of headscarves on university campuses; in September 2013, the AKP lifted a ban on the headscarf in the civil service. At the time, security service members, judges, prosecutors and members of the Turkish Armed Forces remained excluded from the regulation. Since 2014, female students are allowed to wear headscarves in high school.
Now, different reactions to the amendment related to the headscarf reflect the enduring wounds from a delicate and troublesome headscarf history in Turkey, as well as clashing perceptions on the meaning of a secular state. In this regard, columnist and academic Nuray Mert rightly said, “Until today, Islamists have based their politics on resentment, hostility and denial of modern secular politics and society” because of secularist suppression of free debate. Moreover, since “they [Turkey’s Islamists] never needed to explain their alternative to secularism … [they] … still refrain from having an open debate.”
So while the liberation of the headscarf is probably a step forward for religious freedom, it remains to be seen where instincts of Islamists in power will take Turkey. More broadly, important answers to the million-dollar question of whether Islam and liberalism can coexist will continue to be shaped by Islamist governments in power around the world and by the legacies they set.
If Islam is “exceptional,” like scholar Shadi Hamid argues in his latest book titled “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World,” then coming to terms with Islam’s role in public life is something that everyone needs. However, harmonizing that with the more secular sections of society is also indispensable for societal well-being. Policewomen wearing headscarves is a new element in Turkey’s long experiment with that dichotomy. It does not have to have a bad ending.