Of Secularism, Headscarves, and Gender Justice

Over at the Immanent Frame, Joan Scott discusses these issues against the backdrop of the lifting of the ban on headscarves in Turkey.

In Turkey there is now a great deal of controversy about proposed revisions to the constitution that would include lifting the ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities. Many commentators have taken this to be an ominous sign of the intention of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, who represent the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to undermine Turkey’s secular republic in the interests of establishing an Islamist state. In Turkey, as elsewhere in Europe, the headscarf has become a symbol not only of political Islam, but of the oppression of women. When, in 2004, France outlawed the wearing of headscarves in public schools, for example, it was in the name of secularism and gender equality. The two were taken to be synonymous.

History, both in France and Turkey, contradicts the claim that secularism guarantees equal rights for women and men. The French secular state long denied women the right to vote and its civil code enforced male prerogatives over women in families until well into the twentieth century. The Turkish republic (a one-party state until after WWII) was inspired by the French republic (although it gave women the vote in 1934, ten years before France) and it modeled its penal code on Italy’s. Until that code was revised in 2001 (with the support of the AKP), women were defined as men’s property and rape was considered a violation of a male property-holder’s right. Ideas about family honor resting on the control of women’s sexuality are not unique to Islam, nor are they foreign to secularism.

The sharp opposition between the secular and the religious is a distortion of historical reality.