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Turkey’s Islamic Liberals

The liberal voices among Turkey's conservatives, many of them women, will be the bellwethers of social change.
Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in front of the Istanbul University in Istanbul February 29, 2008. Turkey has lifted a ban on students wearing Muslim headscarves but covered women are still marching on university gates demanding to be let in. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY) - RTR1XQ76

With the “democratization package” that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sept. 30, Turkey's observant, conservative women have gained the right to wear head scarves to work in state institutions. This means that such women, banned from the public space for almost a century, since Atatürk’s authoritarian cultural revolution, will now be able work in public sector jobs, such as teaching. For decades, Turkish secularists, as zealous defenders of a zealous from of laïcité — French-style secularism — have always feared and argued that covered heads automatically turn into closed minds. Does this latest development mean that Turkish society will become increasingly close-minded? 

Well, not necessarily, if the women in question think like Turkan Yilmaz, who teaches at Istanbul’s Sabri Taskin Education and Application School, which serves children with learning disabilities. Yilmaz used to wear an Islamic headscarf everywhere except her job — until Erdogan’s reform set her free. Now she not only enjoys her newly gained freedom, but also advocates freedom for those who have ways of life very different from hers. In an Oct. 10 interview with Radikal, she said, “When we were struggling with the ban on the headscarf, many non-veiled women gave us support. So, [individual] choices should be respected. People can wear miniskirts or shorts if they want to. The decision about who should wear what should be made not by the state, but the individual.”

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