A ban on female army officers in Turkey wearing the Muslim headscarf has been lifted by the government.
Turkey will allow female military officers and cadets to wear headscarves with their uniforms, provided that they don’t cover the face or have patterns.
Other military forces, including the US Army, are also adjusting dress and grooming standards to accommodate religious personnel. In a country where 99 percent of the population is officially Muslim, the Turkish military’s decision to allow Islamic headgear might appear to be common sense.
But since its founding in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has defined itself as a secular state, one that regulates and monitors religious practice. This included a ban on women wearing headscarves; In 1999, a headscarf-wearing minister of parliament was heckled out of the chamber.
“Our main aim is to end the discrimination experienced by a section of society just because of their personal beliefs,” Turkish lawmaker Sadullah Ergin told reporters in 2008, when Parliament was considering lifting a ban on headscarves in universities. That ban was lifted; similar restrictions in state institutions, public high schools, and the military’s civilian staff soon followed.
These reforms have been championed by the Justice and Development Party, abbreviated as AKP in Turkish, which has dominated the country’s government since the early 2000s. The party’s members, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, consider themselves Islamist and have advocated for a greater place for religion in Turkish society.
Some Turks have welcomed the easing of strictures on religion. In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor wrote that a lifestyle magazine called Âlâ, “filled with demurely smiling, stylishly head-scarved young women,” had reached a circulation of 30,000 in just six months.
“We are trying to bring new products and new options to women who wear head scarves and women in whose lives Islam plays an important role,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Seyma Yol Kara, told the Monitor at the time.
But while devout Islamic women can now wear headscarves in public, Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities have faced ongoing repression. In 2008, a columnist for a liberal daily asked, “What sort of freedom is it that allows you to free head scarves without thinking of changing discriminatory and assimilatory policies against [non-Sunni Muslim] Alevis and non-Muslims?”