Turkey’s headscarf ban was implemented in 1998 after the postmodern coup of 1997. In France, a formal ban was not in place until 2004. While France bans the headscarf only in public schools, Turkey’s ban applies to all schools and universities, public and private, government buildings and “public spaces.” Although chronologically, Turkey implemented the headscarf ban before France, many people point to the French example and the principle of secularism to explain and justify Turkey’s headscarf ban. It is noteworthy to analyze the historical roots of France’s headscarf ban and Turkey’s imitation of it.
As detailed in Joan Wallach Scott’s book, “The Politics of the Veil,” France’s headscarf ban is strongly based on assimilation principles that come from its colonial history. By accepting French citizenship, you are required to assimilate by shedding your individual history and roots. This is significant because of France’s troubled history with its colonization of North Africa, which it tried to rid of its uncivilized barbaric ways. When these colonizing missions failed, particularly during the Algerian War of 1954, the headscarf became politicized as a symbol of resistance to colonialism and was eventually associated with militancy. This resulted in the mistreatment and sometimes even rape and torture of women who wore headscarves in Algeria.
France first wanted to eliminate the headscarf as a way of erasing barbarism and later as a way of assimilating the North African immigrants into France and erasing the symbol of their failed colonization. This paternalistic attitude led them to push their subjects in Algeria to give up the headscarf, and later when they lost influence over their colonies, to strip them of it by law in France. This tension and loaded meaning behind the headscarf has carried into the present day.
Turkey banned the headscarf and strategically used women to display their secular identity to convince Europe of their modernization. Europeans viewed Islam as backwards and saw veiled women as a symbol of oppression and barbarism, the mentality that led France to justify its colonial endeavors, so Turkey made an exaggerated effort to distance itself from this image by showing women freed from the headscarf in order to align itself with Europe.
There are several contradictions with Turkey’s imitation of France. First, why is Turkey voluntarily implementing the colonial mentality on its own population when many countries fought to free themselves from it? In Algeria thousands died in resistance to France’s interference with their freedom and religion, and Turkey, upon gaining independence and forming a new republic, compromised its citizens’ freedoms by imposing colonial ideals willingly. This is the true step backwards, not wearing a headscarf, which women have done -- and continue to do -- in Turkey for centuries. Why is Turkey willingly forfeiting the religious freedom of its majority Muslim population and debilitating more than half the women in its country? Second, who is Turkey trying to assimilate? In France only 9 percent of the population is Muslim and the ban is to eradicate the visible differences of immigrants, but in Turkey 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslim, and 62 percent of women wear headscarves. Headscarf wearing women are the majority, but they are shunned and left without education or work opportunities. In Western countries, Islam is treated as the other because it is an unfamiliar minority religion, but in Turkey it is the dominant religion and well understood by the population and government alike, so why is Turkey alienating its own population?
Third, despite Turkey’s attempt to please the French by following in their footsteps, opposition to Turkey joining the European Union is largest in France (64.4 percent of the French oppose) out of all European countries. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said Turkey should never be allowed to join because it is culturally and geographically not part of Europe. Although France shuns Turkey, Turkey remains desperate to follow the French and has superseded France’s headscarf ban. This attempt to please Europe and convince them of Turkey’s modernity is clearly not working and hasn’t been for the past several decades. Turkey’s headscarf ban is overcompensating and being overly apologetic for being associated with Islam. In order for Turkey to gain respect, it must first respect itself. That respect begins with not stripping its own women and preventing them from gaining educations and jobs. It’s time Turkey stops following in the footsteps of the French and forges its own secular identity that respects its population and history.