Lifting the veil in Turkey

Turkey's prime minister Recep Erdogan announced this week that the headscarf ban will be partially lifted.

Muslim women in Turkey have been given the right to wear a headscarf in religious schools and in religious classes at regular schools from next year, prime minister Recep Erdogan announced on Tuesday. Erdogan said the partial lifting of the ban came following public demand and to allow “everyone to dress their child as they wish, according to their means”.

The ban on headscarves in public places and in educational institutions in Turkey has always been a contentious issue ever since came into force following the military coup in the 1980s and was part of an attempt to take religion out of the public sphere. It has and still does restrict many Muslim women who give up academia as a result.

Since the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923 following the (Islamic) Ottoman empire’s decline, and the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been a country in which religion has no place in public environments. For Ataturk and many individuals like himself - men with qualifications and admiration for the West - religion had no place in the public sphere and strongly believed in the French view of the church and state separation. Religion was a private matter and should remain so.

Today the belief is still prevalent in Turkey that secularism means progress and that religion is oppressive and limits progression. The failure of the Ottoman empire is believed to have roots in religion; wrongly defending the faith in wars in the early 1900s.

The news follows the lifting of the ban in universities in 2010, but it is still in place for women working in the public sector. Although only girls in religious schools and during Koran lessons in regular schools can now do so, I’m still proud of the government’s decision, even if I don’t always agree with their policies.

In Turkey, no matter where you are, you will always be able to hear the call to prayer or see a mosque when you walk for a few minutes. It is a secular country but one with a majority of Muslim residents and history steeped in Islam, but it is always puzzling to consider why a country which prides itself on being more liberal than its Arab/Middle Eastern counterparts and subscribes to Western ideals doesn’t allow an individual to make a personal choice about what they wear.

Since the age of 14, I’ve been aware of the ban, particularly so during the period when I wore a headscarf (from the ages of 14 to 16) and went to Turkey. I found it odd to walk into my cousins’ school and be forced to take my headscarf off for a brief visit. It wasn’t because of the physical removal of the scarf that I felt awkward, it was the fact that I believed it was up to me whether to wear it- I chose to do so for personal reasons. (Disclosure: my mother doesn’t wear one.)

Critics have said the move is “enabling us to see the intense degree to which the education system is being made religious”, according to Egitim-sen education sector union, but that is an exaggeration. Although the prime minister, Recep Erdogan does appear to be more Islamic than some of his recent predecessors, not every decision he makes is wrong because he has a wife who wears a headscarf.

The assumption is that Erdogan made this decision for Islamic reasons- which is a possibility after his remarks earlier this year about a “religious youth”- but it can still be seen as a move in the right direction for greater religious freedom. Wearing a headscarf should be a right for female students, not an object which forces the individual to choose between education and faith.

 

Turkish women protest against the court's decision in June 2008 that annulled a law allowing women to wear Islamic headscarves at universities. Photograph: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times