Feminism and secularism, rightly understood, both put a high value on liberty and tolerance. Supporters of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities have subverted these philosophies to argue for a policy that harms women, restricts religious and political liberty, and puts the secular government of Turkey at risk.
Feminist proponents of the ban argue that without it, social pressure from family and peers would force women to wear headscarves. This idea implies that women can be liberated only by restricting their freedom. It demonstrates a lack of respect for the autonomy of women and their ability to make their own decisions. If Turkey wants to promote women’s autonomy, it should do so directly, particularly by protecting women who choose to wear or not wear the headscarf from discrimination and retaliation.
What proponents of the ban seem to ignore is that the conditions that “force” female students to wear headscarves do not disappear under the ban. According to Human Rights Watch—an international advocacy organization which has condemned the ban—the policy “has denied thousands of women access to education” by requiring them to abandon part of their religious beliefs to attend universities. To force women to choose between their faith and their future is cruel.
Allowing people to practice their religion is also entirely consistent with secularism—the ideological basis of modern Turkey. Secularism has its roots in the Enlightenment tradition of tolerance and the idea that religion is a choice subject only to individual sovereignty. Using force to prevent religious observance is a perversion of this philosophy, and is more reminiscent of the Inquisition than the Age of Reason.
Even if wearing the headscarf expressed political opposition to secularism, continuing to ban it may be the riskier move for the secular republic. Powerful interest groups, as well as the general public—60 percent, according to one opinion poll—oppose the headscarf ban, and over 400 members of Turkey’s 550-member parliament voted for its repeal. Maintaining the ban despite such opposition would only foster further resentment against the government and its secular policies. The past generation has witnessed the ferocious backlash that can result against a blanket secularism imposed tactlessly, most notably in the streets of Tehran in 1979. Removing this prohibition would prevent the disintegration of the balance between secular and fundamentalist interests that has existed in Turkey since it became a republic.
If Turkey’s government really were threatened by women wearing headscarves in universities, a ban on that act would constitute the worst kind of censorship. A government that quashes opposition to itself is a tyrannical government. A free society must tolerate the speech of those who would destroy it, just as a secular society must allow the expression of religious beliefs opposed to it.
The removal of the ban is ultimately about tolerance of religious, political, and personal liberty. These are essential human rights, not cultural perks to be sacrificed for expediency. To praise censorship and intolerance in Turkey while decrying it in the western world is to adhere to an unacceptable and unfounded double standard.
Max J. Kornblith ‘10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Cabot house. Daniel P. Robinson ‘10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland house.
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