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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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.