“Headscarf Ban and Labor Discrimination in Turkey” with Dilek Cindoglu (Bilkent University)
The headscarf ban in institutions of higher education in Turkey remains a highly debated and politicized issue. Most analyses have not focused on the impact of the ban on headscarved women’s lives. While there has been considerable focus on the public sector ban on headscarves experiences of these women in the workplace have largely been ignored. What is the impact of the ban on the professional lives of headscarved women with higher education? What obstacles were placed before them to enter the job market and advance in their careers? Join us for a discussion on these issues with Dilek Cindoglu and Merve Kavakci Islam.
Merve Kavakci Islam (George Washington University)
Kadir Ustun (The SETA Foundation)
Dilek Cindoglu, describing herself as a “feminist sociologist,” said that she focuses her research on gender discrimination. Cindoglu situates the headscarf ban in Turkey within the broader frame of gender issues in Turkey. She pointed out that women’s labor market participation in Turkey has dropped to 22% from around 34% over the last two decades. Cindoglu’s latest report asked the question, “How does the headscarf ban in public sector affect professionalheadscarved women’s access to and promotion in the labor market in Turkey?” Cindoglu mentioned that women in Turkey have not had problems with headscarf as blue-collar workers; however, problems arose especially after 1980’s when headscarved women had some chances to attend higher education institutions and sought positions in the professional labor market. She argued that although patriarchal values played a significant role in women’s low participation in the labor market the headscarf ban is a significant cause as well.
Cindoglu described many challenges for a headscarved professional woman ranging from being eliminated from the applicant pool because of her portrait photo in the professional resume (photos are included in resumes in the Turkish system) to being eliminated at the interviews or accepting certain restrictions and away-from-the-public-eye positions. She gave examples of professional headscarved women such as pharmacists, lawyers, or even journalists who are often discriminated against in public and private sectors. In conclusion, her study shows the headscarf ban influences all women, even the non-headscarved ones, and professional headscarved women face discrimination in recruitments, promotions and dismissals.
Merve Kavakci Islam underlined that the headscarf ban has been in effect since the early 1980’s although many people in the US academia and media think of it as a post-90s issue as it became a political issue. She mentioned that women’s rights in Turkey are an evolving matter that needs to be carefully analyzed. Kavakci Islam referred to the “Turkish puzzle” as an “explicable” matter having its roots in the construction of the originally Orientalist notion of “Turkish exceptionalism’. She explained that “Turkish exceptionalism” is predicated upon western democracies’ approach to Turkey in comparison to other Muslim countries and looking away from the human right violations. She said that Turkey has enjoyed this “exceptionality” and being shown as an exemplary Muslim democracy, while human rights, especially women’s rights issues of practicing Muslims have been overlooked. Kavakci Islam also added to root causes of “Turkish puzzle” the patriarchal nature of the Turkish state.
Kavakci Islam emphasized that the problems of headcarved women in Turkey start with educational institutions and she described the “persuasion rooms” in late 1990’s for headscarved students to give up their practices as “gas chambers for the soul.” She argued that such practices showed the conditionality of receiving citizenship rights based on a commitment to a particular interpretation of secularism, that is “Turkish secularism.” She gave examples of the use of wigs by not only students at universities but also by their family members to access university premises. She mentioned the ban forced some women to uncover their hair during work and to cover again after work. She tied such cases to lack of separation between the public and the private spheres in Turkey. She also mentioned that the headscarved women has become burden not only on themselves but also on their families as their husbands, brothers, sons are victimized or discriminated against in their very male jobs. She argued that there existed an “unsung pact” or “silent coalition” between the Kemalist initiators and promoters of the ban and the practicing Muslims.
During the Q/A session Cindoglu said that discrimination and harassment against women have been in existence and unless clear anti-discrimination laws and regulations are put in place it will continue to be so. Making a distinction between prejudicial practices and systematic discrimination, Cindoglu also discussed the possibility of collaboration between non-headscarved women and headscarved women. She underlined the need for research on the economic effects of the headscarf ban in Turkey. Kavakci Islam identified the “turban” vs “headscarf” distinction as an artificial one introduced with good intentions by Ihsan Dogramaci (the head of Turkish Higher Education Council in the 1980’s) to find a way to negotiate between the state and headscarved women. She mentioned that the term “turban” was used afterwards to blame some headscarved women who want their rights as politically motivated. She also emphasized the international society did not recognize the headscarf ban as a human rights issue until 1999 when she herself was prevented from serving in the Turkish parliament. Responding to a question about the level of her satisfaction with the steps taken by the government to repeal the ban and political participation of the headscarved women, Kavakci Islam said that she was obviously not satisfied. She added that all political parties should take up this issue collectively.
Dilek Cindoglu, Ph.D.,is a Visiting Senior Scholar at the IRWAG of the Columbia University and Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of Political Science, Bilkent University, Ankara. She received her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo (1991), M.A (1986) and B.A (1983) from Bogazici University, Istanbul. She works on gendered processes of politics, labor markets, migration, health and sexuality. She received Direct Access to the Muslim World award from the Fulbright Visiting Specialist Program (2006), was a visiting fellow at the Center for Gender and Sexuality at New York University (2003), and Senior Fellow at the St.Antony’s College, Oxford (2002), as an Honorary Fellow and Fulbright scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center of University of Wisconsin at Madison (1998-1999). She worked as consultant on various projects funded by various donors including The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, IDRC of Canada, Ford Foundation, World Bank, ILO-IPEC, EU, published in Turkish and international journals and in edited books. She is an elected board member of the Turkish Sociological Association and the International Sociological Association. Dr. Cindoglu’s related reseach on the theme was recently published as a report titled “Headscarf Ban And Discrimination: Professional Headscarved Women In The Labor Market” by TESEV Publications.
Merve Kavakci Islam, Ph.D., is a Lecturer of International Relations at George Washington University. She holds a Ph.D in political science from Howard University, an MPA from Harvard University and a B.S. in software engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. She was elected to the Turkish Parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1999. However she was prevented from serving her term by the secularists because she wears a headscarf. Kavakci’s political party was closed down and her Turkish citizenship was revoked, banning her from politics for a period of five years. She took her case to European Court of Human Rights and won in 2007. Kavakci is recognized among the World’s Most Influential 500 Muslims. She was recognized among “Women of Excellence” by NAACP and GWU in 2004. She was awarded the Public Service Award in Tribute and in Recognition of efforts for the advancement of human rights and Muslim Women’s empowerment by International Association for Women and Children in 2000. She was awarded Service to Humanity Award by Haus Der Kulturellen Aktivitat und Toleranz in Vienna, Austria in 1999. She was granted Mother of the Year Award by Capital Platform of Ankara and National Youth Organization in 1999. Kavakci is a consultant for US Congress on the Muslim world and a columnist for Turkish daily Yeni Akit newspaper. She sits at the Editorial Board of Mediterranean Quarterly. She is the author of Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Postcolonial Reading and five other books some of which are translated to Arabic and Persian.
The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) at Washington, D.C. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to innovative studies on national, regional, and international issues concerning Turkey and US-Turkey relations.