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Yes to Headscarf and No to Headscarf!

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For almost two decades, I have been struggling to explain the headscarf issue in Turkey to the people I meet in the U.S. I've been so overwhelmed by the questions. Since the common image of Islam is negative with regard to girls' education and women in general, people often assume that Turkish women are not allowed to go to school, for example, as a matter of religion. When I've said that is not the case and that Turkey is a secular and democratic country, it was confusing for many of them and difficult to understand how democracy and a headscarf ban can go together.

Well, there is nothing democratic about repressing women's access to education or the workplace because of their religious beliefs. Yet Atatürk's revolution promoted secularism and abolished religious attire as part of an effort to orient Turkey toward the West. Secular Turkish authorities didn't consider the headscarf an expression of faith -- which is protected under the Constitution -- but argued that the headscarf is a religious symbol.

However, finally, this complicated and sensitive issue has largely been resolved. Now we even have four female deputies who wear headscarves in Parliament. Actually, there was no law that restricted deputies from wearing a headscarf in Parliament, but it was a taboo that has now been broken.

In Turkey, the headscarf has been commonly considered a symbol of backwardness by secularists. They fail to understand women's motivations for wearing headscarves. Basically, the major Islamic institutions consider the headscarf an obligation for Muslim women because it obscures their physical allure, and many Muslim women wear headscarves as a personal choice. For women who choose to wear a headscarf, it is a crucial part of their personal identity and it cannot be compromised. Certainly, there are some women today who are forced to cover themselves against their will. However, it is wrong to assume that every woman who does so is coerced into the practice.

Since some secularists can easily link the headscarf to some of the gender inequality and brutality that takes place in some Muslim societies -- as in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia -- they cannot see the lifting of the ban as liberation.

Many secularists doubt the sincerity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's claim that the removal of the ban was a democratic move, and they see it as the government's attempt to push an Islamic agenda. Mr. Erdoğan has to reassure everyone that lifting the headscarf ban will not affect the line separating religion and the state.

Yet the old school politics-type focus on reproductive rights, such as an attempt to put a ban on Caesarian sections and prohibit abortion or recommending how many children families should have, is not very helpful.

Recently, the biggest concern in Turkish society has been a fear of losing freedoms due to the conservative Justice and Development (AK Party) policies. Since last May, Mr. Erdoğan has been accused of and criticized very heavily for intervening in citizens' private lives.

And now there is an alarming discussion related to recent official statements about private university students' co-ed dormitories and homes, since the statements suggest that the government may pass some laws to let governors deal with neighbors' complaints about potentially inappropriate behavior. The statements are not clear yet on the details regarding either the behavior or the action to be taken in response, but it was enough to fire up a very heated debate in Turkey.

Mr. Erdoğan and the AK Party have to remember that in modern democracies a state doesn't have the right to control society. That kind of attitude would damage civil rights and kill pluralism and the liberal lifestyle.

The same day the headscarved female deputies went to Parliament, Mr. Erdoğan announced with joy: "A dark time eventually comes to an end. Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it."

If there are to be equal rights for every woman, Mr. Erdoğan must keep his promises to make women (and others, actually) full members of the Turkish Republic, and he should be a voice for everyone. He should learn to trust individuals and not interfere in their social and private lives.