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Turkish military calls off war on headscarves, beards

Following a landmark court ruling, Turkey's military leaders have eased the strict rules governing the appearance of civilians entering military bases and other areas.
A girl holds a Turkish flag as army officers and their families visit the Anitkabir, mausoleum of the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, on Martyrs' Day in Ankara March 18, 2007. Ataturk is the revered founder of modern Turkey and the republic's first head of state. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (Turkey) - RTR1NN7T

Headscarves have long been a symbol of the power struggle in Turkey between secular elites labeled as the "center" and a conservative segment labeled as the "periphery." The recent easing of this struggle and the trend toward normalization is be attributed mainly to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which still is the most prominent representative of the center and softened its strict stance against headscarves. In a March 20 decision by the High Military Court, the TSK annulled its rigid practice of prohibiting first-degree relatives (spouse, children and parents) of TSK personnel from entering military premises, living quarters, military clubs and social facilities wearing headscarves.

The High Military Court's ruling concerns hundreds of thousands of female relatives of TSK personnel. Infantry noncommissioned officer Hakan Kayabasi had sued the Ministry of National Defense, which had rejected his application for a military ID card that would allow his wife to enter military housing on the grounds that she wore a headscarf in her photo on the application form. In its defense, the ministry surprised everyone by maintaining the ban on headscarves and asking that case be dismissed. But the court found Kayabasi's argument justified and the ban to be “against human rights and equality,” and ended the practice of denying ID cards to women relatives whose photographs contained headscarves.

Kayabasi’s lawyer, Mehmet Erkan Akkus, emphasizes the ruling will set a precedent, telling Hurriyet, "With this ruling, from now on relatives of TSK personnel with headscarves will not have any problems entering military clubs, social facilities and military premises. This important decision concerns about 1 million people.”

With this ruling, the TSK has untangled itself from an issue that seriously lowered its prestige with the public and what were seen as uncompromising and unfair practices that at times violated human rights and the law.

One has to remember in Turkey, where all male citizens must serve 12 months in the armed forces, the military is an important element of social life. For years the public complained bitterly about the ban on conservative Turkish mothers attending their sons' important oath-taking ceremonies. The mothers, wives or sisters of tens of thousands of soldiers could not see their sons, husbands or brothers sworn in as a soldier because of the unyielding military rule posted at entrances of military areas: “No entry with headscarves.”

No doubt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been delighted with the inflexible TSK rule since 2002. The AKP has been adept at making political ammunition of this issue.

For example, in 2007, Gen. Aslan Guner, then the deputy chief of general staff, walked out of the protocol lineup when welcoming President Abdullah Gul at the airport to avoid shaking the hand of his wife Hayrunnisa Gul, who wears a headscarf. The incident made headlines. In 2010 Emine Erdogan, the wife of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went to the Military Medical Academy Hospital in Ankara to visit a patient and was denied entry because she wore a headscarf, another major scandal in the news media.

In yet another striking example of the Turkish military’s unbending hard-line attitude to the headscarf, at the 2010 Independence Day reception in Adana, all the officers present walked out in protest when guests with headscarves arrived. It was later understood the mass walkout was an order from the high command that had been interpreted as “walk out when you see a headscarf.”

The inconsistencies in the military’s criteria for headwear at times led to humorous consequences. For example, in the attire rules for the entry of civilians to military premises, the rule that read “If a woman who comes to a military facility agrees to knot her headscarf under her jaw, she will be allowed entry” became the subject of sarcastic jokes that the TSK categorized traditional headscarves as not threatening to national security and conservative headscarves as threatening to national security. Also, this ban applied to Turkish citizens without exception but not to foreign military personnel and their relatives, which was seen as farcical.

What caused the Turkish military's ironclad attitude toward headscarves? Associate professor Zeki Sarigil of Bilkent University, known for his studies on military-society issues, told Al-Monitor, "The Turkish army is truly sensitive to uncompromising secularism of absolute separation of what is religious and what belongs to the state.” Sarigil said the Turkish military has always seen itself as the guardian of uncompromising secularism and couldn’t have handled the headscarf issue otherwise. He added, "We can say that we are undergoing an important transformation in civilian-military relations and also in the TSK’s own organizational culture. One aspect of this change is the softening of the TSK’s approach to secularism and religious freedoms.”

Of course, one should not deny the role of the gradual relaxation over the headscarf issue in the country as a whole. Sarigil noted, "The military as a part of this society feels the need to keep in step with the normalization in society. To preserve its legitimacy, an institution tries to be in harmony with its environment. Until now, academics like myself have focused on the changes in civilian-military relations. Certainly these changes have affected the internal dynamics, opinions, values and tendencies of the military. But there is not much academic study of this change in the TSK, which still remains a black box."

Here another important development in the easing of the TSK rules on appearances warrants mention. In a March 30 decision by the high command, bearded men can now enter military clubs and social facilities.

In sum, it is possible to say that the TSK is undergoing changes parallel to the changes in society. There is no doubt the easing of the TSK rules against headscarves and beards will contribute positively to military-society relations. Most promising, we will no longer read heart-wrenching reports of headscarf-wearing mothers shedding tears at base entrances while missing their sons' swearing-in as soldiers.

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