Monday, October 21, 2013

What is in a Headscarf? Some thought concerning Dress Code Revisions in Turkey

Turkish government signs onto revising dress code
partially lifting head scaef ban 
After over a decade in power, Prime Minister Erdoğan finally announced that his government has done away with the headscarf ban as part of his “Democratization Package,” which is aimed at correcting an array of state-sanctioned injustices. As of October 8, women in Turkey are now allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in the public sector, ending one of the Turkish Republic’s most stringent secular codes. The next day, television crews were out there to get a glimpse of public school teachers coming to school with their headscarves on.  As someone who has for years spoken against the ban, seeing these teachers was a joyous moment; I still remember when it was also forbidden for university students with the headscarf to enter the classroom. Good riddance to such times.    

Even if there are still some pockets of staunch secularists who vehemently oppose the right of women to cover their heads, it seems most Turkish citizens see this as a something of the past, and clearly unjust in its application. Simply, it was an absurd law that was blatantly discriminatory. One voice of objection actually came from an American emerita professor of anthropology at Stanford University, Carol Delaney, in a letter to the editor in response to a previous article entitled,  Turkey Lifts Longtime Ban on Head Scarves in State Offices (09 October 2013). She states:

The Turkish government’s lifting of the ban on head scarves in government offices  should not be taken as a sign of democracy, despite what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims. Instead, it is another insidious step toward the Islamist state he desires and against the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk”

What Professor Delaney had in mind when writing this (or anyone else supporting the continued ban) is hard to imagine since the debate over the headscarf for the most part has been a point of contention among male politicians and not the Turkish population at large. However, her point of view does represent one stream of the former intolerant Turkish State’s political elite.  

Erdoğan’s revising of the dress code, however, also received a negative response among some who have fought years for an end to the headscarf ban since the Turkish government fell short of addressing the issue in its entirety, keeping the headscarf ban in place in the military and police force. Further, while woman lawyers are able to cover in court, they still cannot serve as judges or public prosecutors. In other words, Erdoğan has legitimized the right to restrict the headscarf in certain fields of work, something that should be seen as a grave development in the path to freedom.

The fact that the Prime Minister has chosen to keep the ban in these fields of work is disappointing. While it can be argued perhaps that he chose to remain at a safe distance from the former secularist bastion of the courts and army, we know that over the last decade he has systematically strengthened civil institutions in Turkey, securing a state system that is no longer threatened by military coups; in other words, this does not hold up under scrutiny since he certainly has the power to implement it also in these spheres. Such a decision can lead to the conclusion that the Prime Minister might not find employment in security forces as a proper place for religious women to serve. In other words, yes for teachers, but not police officers.  

Women are not the only ones shortchanged in the revision of dress codes (by the way, women public employees still need to make sure their skirt goes down to their knees with no slit on the side). According to the current dress code, men employed in the government sector need to be clean shaven; meaning, a man with a beard, which also can be due to religious reasons, is still unable to work in the public sector (while the beard is banned a modest mustache is permitted; closely mirroring Erdoğan’s own facial features). 

So what are we to make of this? While the recent changing in the dress code should be applauded, citizens in Turkey supporting a liberal democratic state can actually interpret this move as a continuation of the “uniform” state, i.e., not a state that promotes diversity, but one that supports uniformity based on  the “State’s” will.

Further, the move by Erdoğan to implement the changes in the dress code now, can actually be interpreted as being motivated out of realpolitik and not out of a liberal understanding of equal rights. With three elections just around the corner (municipality, presidential, parliamentary), Erdoğan needs to address his own conservative base, and other political groups that have adopted a more religious conservative agenda than his own; especially since some liberal camps, who have supported his reforms during the last decade, are reconsidering their support in light of the Gezi Park protests.  

Perhaps it is telling that the same day when the newspapers were congratulating the new changes in the dress code, one of Erdoğan government ministers criticized a woman television presenter’s dress, as it showed too much cleavage. The next day she was fired by the television company. Truly this is a sign that in Turkey (as many places) controversy related to a women’s dress or body, will continue to be debated and monitored by male politicians.

While the partial-lifting of the headscarf ban is a great move towards allowing more women into the workforce, it seems that this is not topping the Turkish government’s agenda. With Erdoğan continuing to encourage families to have at least three children, if not four, heavy social pressures are being placed on Turkish women to remain in the home. Further, with Turkey’s booming economy, one would think that in terms of gender equality, Turkey would have improved; however, the opposite is true with Turkey dropping from 105 (out 135 countries) in 2006, to 124 in 2012, on the Global gender gap scale; despite this, one sign of hope is that women in the workforce has jumped from 23.3% in2008 to 29.3% in 2012 according to the Turkish Statistic Foundation (TUIK).

With huge gaps in gender equality, the major force of debate in Turkey now should move on from the issue of headscarves onto working towards a more gender equitable society. Unfortunately, the government’s continued partial ban on the headscarf sends a tacit message that women are not welcomed in all fields of government employment at a time when the opposite message is needed. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The State did not Protect him: Hasan Ferit Gedik's Untimely Death*

Last Sunday evening, news of an armed attack on a group of protesters started to appear across my twitter feed. One of the protesters was in intensive care due to multiple bullet wounds, his name was Hasan Ferit Gedik (hereafter: Ferit). Reports were confusing, with some saying he was alive and others he was dead; well, within hours it was clear that he would not make it. He was only 21 years old. What a loss. As for his friend, Gökhan Aktaş, he was in critical condition, now stable, and even if his life is out of danger he will have a long agonizing road to recovery.

Not like the six Gezi protesters who were killed facing police violence, Ferit was murdered while protesting the presence of drug gangs, who have taken over Maltepe’s sub-neighborhood of Gulsuyu, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Unknown assailants shot six bullets in his head, back and neck, ending the People’s Front (Halk Cephesi) demonstration in tragedy; however, despite the police knowing of the sensitivity of the protest, they did not protect them. In the past, other protesters have been attacked by members of the drug cartel in the very same neighborhood.  The police force’s inability to clampdown on the drug trafficking, prevent attacks-or indifference to such attacks-has led to the serious accusation that the police are in cahoots with the cartel.

If only those allegations had been leveled; following Ferit’s death, there were reports of plain clothes policemen entering the hospital room, and his shirt and undershirt being lifted. The next day, the public prosecutor announced that he did not order any evidence to be confiscated and that it had gone “missing”; of course, an essential piece of evidence.  While at the same time, less than 72 hours after his death, news broke that the weapons used in the attack-2 pistols and an assault rifle- had been located off the coast not too far from the scene and were retrieved by police divers. Therefore, even if there have been arrests made, Ferit’s family and friends have little reason to trust the authorities.

Throwing salt on the wounds, as of Wednesday night, Ferit’s funeral procession has been blocked by the Turkish authorities who refuse to heed to the family’s demand that his body before being buried be taken to the site of his killing as a memorial to his untimely death.  For the last 48 hours, his body has been resting in a coffin in his own neighborhood’s Cemevi (jem-evi), the Alevi sect’s house of prayer. This neighborhood, Küçük Armutlu, is no stranger to the Turkish police since it is a known leftist stronghold with a tradition of challenging state authority. As of last night the neighborhood is basically under siege with police and water cannons surrounding it.  

If this was not enough, the fact that he was of the Alevi sect comes at a time when the religious minority is locked in conflict with the state-despite wide representation from all walks of life, all of the protesters in Gezi who were killed were Alevi, and numerous clashes have recently taken place against state projects to gentrify and transform their lower middle-class neighborhoods. Most recently, an article in the online newspaper, Al-Monitor, addressed the issues of the Alevis and the recent events. While some had expected that PM Erdogan would address some of the Alevi demands in his unveiling of the much-awaited “Democratic Packgage” on Monday-just hours after Ferit’s passing away-this too proved to be a disappointment.

What is clear is that the Turkish government must open a transparent investigation into the murder of Hasan Ferit Gedik. While police violence remains for the most part without any serious investigation as was demonstrated in the Gezi Park protests, this case brings the accusations up a notch, raising questions if there are connections between the police and drug traffickers; if these accusations are not addressed at the top-level, it will serve as just another example of the growing mistrust many Turkish people feel towards their government.

UPDATE: Today, Thursday (03-10-2013) Ferit has been buried in the Gazi cemetery  Before burying him the state authorities heeded the demands of the family that his body be taken to the site of his killing, where a memorial ceremony/protest was held.

*For articles in Turkish that helped me "fill in the blanks" concerning the case I used the following 3 articles from Radikal. This is an edited version of the original (slight changes for clarity).


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