Saturday, September 22, 2007

Why are we a nation obsessed with the headscarf?

To most outside observers the scene must be looking pretty bizarre: Thousands of otherwise reasonable men and women in this country, who make up much of the social elite, are having panic attacks in the face of the possibility that Turkish universities might tolerate their students wearing the Islamic headscarf. Virtually everyday, bureaucrats, pundits and even university rectors lash out against the proposed article in the proposed constitution to set the headscarf free. "This will be the end of the secular republic," they passionately claim, without realizing that a secular republic that doesn't respect the rights and liberties of its citizens is called a secular tyranny.

I have repeatedly said what I think about this prohibition on the headscarf: It is a violation of human rights, and it is a shame on our democracy. I also have made a suggestion to make things more fair if this ban is going to last: The citizens who wear the headscarf should pay less taxes. They obviously don't get anything from Turkey's education system, and they should not be required to take a share in its finance. If they are second-class citizens, why should they pay the same rates with the folks in the first class?
Anyway, tyrannies are tyrannies and they don't bother about such details. And the story of our homegrown one is too broad a topic to discuss in a single column. That's why I rather want to focus on the origins of the obsession with the headscarf. While other Islamic practices such as the Ramadan fast is not a problem in Turkey, why is this one a huge bone of contention? Remembering the hat revolution: To find an answer, we have to go back to the Ottoman Empire, which underlies much of modern Turkey. In this multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, headgear was an important symbol because it specified a person's religious and thus legal identity. For a long time, the three “nations” of the empire — the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians — had their own distinct turbans. What you put on your head also said who you are. The person who changed that was Sultan Mahmud II, who, during his reign (1808-1839), brought in many modern concepts such as the rule of law, the limits of the state's powers and the idea of equal citizenship. Under Mahmud, Jews and Christians were granted equal rights with Muslims, and all of them were introduced to a new headgear called the “fez.” This red cylindrical cap was a novelty, which some conservatives did not like, but soon all Ottoman citizens, regardless of their creed, accepted it. Yet the real revolution would come about a century after Mahmud II, and this time the goal was not “Ottomanization” as he had aimed, but rather de-Ottomanization. Mustafa Kemal, Turkey's Westernist founder, took that bold step as early as 1925 with this famous “hat revolution.” For him, the fez symbolized everything that he wanted to save the Turks from, and the bowler hat represented everything that he wanted to turn them into. He showed up in the conservative city of Kastamonu in August 1925 with a bowler on this head. “This is called a hat gentlemen,” he said, “from now on, we will wear this.” Soon came the hat law, which outlawed all religious turbans and made it compulsory for civil servants to wear the “headgear of the civilized peoples.” Atatürk did not touch women's veils, but he systematically promoted the ideal “modern Turkish woman,” who was supposed to wear all the trendy clothes including those vintage swimsuits of the ‘30s. Atatürk and his followers were very enthusiastic about the bowler hats, and, at a time when much of the war-stricken Turkish society was in total destitute, they did not refrain from spending great sums of money to import them from various European countries. Yet not everybody was a great fan of this compulsory fashion. For many devout Muslims, the hat represented the Christian West and they perceived its imposition onto Muslim society as an act of forced self-denial. They saw in the bowlers even an implicit message of disobedience to God. It was impossible to wear this rimmed hat during the daily Muslim prayer, in which the believers put their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission to the Almighty. So putting on the hat, for them, looked like abandoning worship. The victims of the bowler hat: Hence came the reactions to the hat revolution. In the northeastern coastal town of Rize the whole populace rejected the idea, sparking a rebellion that led Ankara to send the giant warship Hamidiye to the shores of the city in order to be persuasive. In Erzurum a group of 30 protestors were fired upon by the gendarmerie and several of them, including a woman, were shot. The most notorious episode would be the case of İskilipli Atıf, a “hodja,” i.e., a religious scholar, who wrote a treatise titled “The Hat and the Imitation of the Franks,” in which he objected to the idea by arguing that it would amount to the abandonment of Muslim culture.

Although he had written that 32-page tract before the revolution, at a time when the word was around but the law was not in practice, he was arrested by the authorities charged with treason. Soon he was tried by one of the “Independence Courts,” which were arbitrary revolutionary tribunals similar to the ones established by the French revolutionaries and later the Bolsheviks in order to eliminate the “enemies of the people.” In his defense, İskilipli Atıf said that he stood behind his views, and the court cold-bloodedly sentenced him to death. The old man was executed by hanging on Feb. 4, 1925. “Don't cry my child,” he said in his last hours to his daughter who was in tears. “Just recite the Koran for my soul.” İskilipli Atıf was only one of the many victims of the hat revolution.

Eight others were executed in Rize, seven in Maraş and four in Erzurum. According to the Turkish version of Encyclopedie Larousse, the number of people killed by the regime was as high as 78. Moreover, many others were sentenced to 10 to 15 years of imprisonment. Permanent revolution: More than 80 years have passed since the hat revolution and its victims. Yet the mindset of the revolutionaries has changed very little, if at all. Nobody wears hats anymore, and the male headgear is a non-issue. But now the focus is on the female headdress. The revolutionaries still want to do the same thing: They want to eradicate all traditional Islamic clothes. They would love to do it by employing revolutionary guards on the streets to rip the veils off, but that is not feasible. So they rather prefer to contain the veiled women by pushing them out of the “public square” and denying them the right to education. The ultimate aim is to make all of them “modern” by using coercive powers of the state.

What these revolutionaries fail to understand is that in the modern world, states have no right to interfere with the dress codes of their citizens, and that individuals have the right to live in whatever manner they choose. Actually if there is any version of “modernity” that they resemble, that is the way of Chairman Mao, whose Cultural Revolution traumatized a whole nation during the late ‘60s. Turkey's cultural revolution has been much less radical, thank God, but unlike Mao's now defunct tyranny, it still goes on.* Published in THE TURKISH DAILY NEWS on September 20, 2007.

No comments: