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Headscarf discrimination spills over into private sector

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Zehra Taşkesenlioglu, a businesswoman in her 30s, is proud of her accomplishments in the face of what she views as discrimination against women who cover their heads in the public and private sector

Now the head of the Maya Project Management consultancy firm, Taşkesenlioglu said she first encountered discrimination when she returned to Turkey after pursuing a doctoral degree.

"When I came to Turkey in 2004 … there was a reality of underestimating covered women in both private and public sectors. I applied to so many jobs, ranging from the treasury to private banks. However, in most of them I couldn't even reach the interview stage," she told SES Türkiye.

After realising she wouldn't be able to get the position she was looking for, she said she decided to open her own company to "realise my dreams by my own rules."

Taşkesenlioglu's story is an example of hidden discrimination against women spilling over from the public into the private sector. The trend was once again revealed last month after a headscarved volunteer, Elif Demirci, working in an aid campaign held on CarrefourSa premises in Istanbul, was fired because she covered her head.

Speaking to SES Türkiye, Demirci said such unwritten dress codes are the reflection of an institutional mentality that does not provide educated covered women with equal opportunities in the work force. "This is something which also contradicts with the liberty of working protected under the constitution," she said.

Restrictions against wearing the headscarf are partly a legacy of the postmodern coup of February 28th 1997, when an attempt was made to remove symbols of Islam from society. Although the ban was officially implemented in the public sphere, such as in universities, some private firms also avoided hiring covered women.

Fatma Benli, a prominent lawyer who advocates for the rights of covered women, told SES Türkiye that companies want to appear "modern" and view covered women as likely to undermine that image.

"The main reason is related to our perception regarding women. Regardless of being religious-conservative or secular, most of the employers prefer not to hire covered women. Or, they push them to the fringes in invisible positions because they accord priority to the look of the employee rather than her success in the business life," said Benli, who wears a headscarf.

Gunal Kursun, Human Rights Agenda Association secretary-general and assistant professor at Adana Cukurova University, said that the headscarf debate is a natural outcome of a democratic transformation process through which Turkey is passing.

"In countries where different ethnic groups and identities exist, such debates continue for some time. But afterwards the societal balance will fall into place," Kursun told SES Türkiye.

According to Kursun, there is a widespread perception within the society that views the right of women to cover their bodies as contrary to laicism. "But such a right," he said, "should in fact be conceived as the foremost guarantee of laicism."

According to the estimates, more than half of Turkey's women wear a headscarf, while the female labor force participation rate is less than 30 percent, and much lower for covered women.

Professor Dilek Cindoglu, a scholar at Bilkent University in Ankara who researches the headscarf issue, also thinks that the ban in the public sector influences practices of the private sector. However, she said that the non-existence of any updated statistics about the rate of covered women in the private sector is a problem.

"For instance, a covered journalist willing to pursue political news will be granted with limited choices to access. From the same vein, a headscarved pharmacist attending meetings with governmental organisations can cause trouble. So, that ban has a spillover effect into the private sphere," Cindoglu said.

According to Cindoglu, such barriers feed the traditional and gender-based division of labor that keeps women within the home and assigns them a dependent role.

According to an April report by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, the continuation of discrimination against covered women is being supported by a conservative-secular coalition.

Covered women have suffered discrimination in private workplaces and recommends that it is crucial to address this issue in the new constitution Turkey is currently drafting, the foundation said.

However, the report states it isn't necessary to add a specific article about freedom to wear the headscarf. "It is sufficient that the spirit of the new Constitution remains in line with fundamental rights and freedoms and doesn't include any articles open to interpretation by authoritarian institutions to legitimate their bans," it said.

The report also points to a common practice in private workplaces that offer reduced wages and longer working hours to covered women under the assumption that they have limited choices in the labor market. Experts think that this is also partly related to companies' traditional views of women's role in the society.

Kursun said the discrimination against women who wear headscarves should end. "If we aim for establishing a full-scale democracy, we should remove all invisible barriers for those people.

"SES Türkiye" 




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