Turkey lifts ban on headscarves in the military

Turkey will now allow its female soldiers to wear a headscarf with their uniforms, marking a shift in the secular military.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/File
Fashion enthusiasts take pictures during the launch fashion show of the International Modest Fashion Week, in Istanbul, Friday, May 13, 2016. Turkey’s first International Modest Fashion Week has opened in Istanbul bringing designers and models of conservative wear from around the world.

Turkey will allow female military officers and cadets to wear headscarves with their uniforms, provided that they don’t cover the face or have patterns.

Other military forces, including the US Army, are also adjusting dress and grooming standards to accommodate religious personnel. In a country where 99 percent of the population is officially Muslim, the Turkish military’s decision to allow Islamic headgear might appear to be common sense.

But since its founding in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has defined itself as a secular state, one that regulates and monitors religious practice. This included a ban on women wearing headscarves; In 1999, a headscarf-wearing minister of parliament was heckled out of the chamber.

Wednesday’s news comes as the latest of several relaxations on these policies, which many observers see as a larger shift away from the country’s secular roots.

"Our main aim is to end the discrimination experienced by a section of society just because of their personal beliefs," Turkish lawmaker Sadullah Ergin told reporters in 2008, when Parliament was considering lifting a ban on headscarves in universities. That ban was lifted; similar restrictions in state institutions, public high schools, and the military’s civilian staff soon followed.

These reforms have been championed by the Justice and Development Party, abbreviated as AKP in Turkish, which has dominated the country’s government since the early 2000s. The party’s members, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, consider themselves Islamist and have advocated for a greater place for religion in Turkish society.

Some Turks have welcomed the easing of strictures on religion. In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor wrote that a lifestyle magazine called Âlâ, “filled with demurely smiling, stylishly head-scarved young women,” had reached a circulation of 30,000 in just six months.

“We are trying to bring new products and new options to women who wear head scarves and women in whose lives Islam plays an important role,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Seyma Yol Kara, told the Monitor at the time.

But while devout Islamic women can now wear headscarves in public, Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities have faced ongoing repression. In 2008, a columnist for a liberal daily asked, "What sort of freedom is it that allows you to free head scarves without thinking of changing discriminatory and assimilatory policies against [non-Sunni Muslim] Alevis and non-Muslims?"

In the past, the spread of Islam has also drawn the ire of Turkey’s military, which has ousted past governments that it deemed insufficiently secular. It most recently flexed its muscle with a failed coup attempt in July, which drew months of crackdowns from Erdogan.

The military had been the last Turkish public institution with a headscarf ban.

The easing of the ban on headscarves could suggest that Turkey's younger generations aren’t as concerned with preserving the country’s rigid secularism.

As reported by Agence France-Presse, “There had been signs that the landmark reform was in the offing when press reports said that a woman, Merve Gurbuz, was undergoing training that could make her Turkey’s first hijab-wearing fighter pilot.”

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