Headscarf, a “Headache” in Turkey

On August 29, Turkey bid farewell to a 81-year-old journalist, writer Shule Yuksel Shenler, who was one of the pioneers in the struggle for the rights of Muslim women in Turkish society. Shenler became the voice of Muslim women in secular and “westernized” Turkey, where Muslim women were depressed in social life and subjected to much criticism for their religious views, in particular, for wearing headscarf. Her articles and numerous conferences (1960-1970’s), to some extent, contributed to the formation of the image of headscarf wearing, but at the same time educated and accomplished Muslim Turkish women in Turkish society. It should be mentioned that the problem of headscarf has been the main issue of Shenler’s fight. She became the first journalist wearing a headscarf in Turkey. Lessons that she took from a tailor when she was yet a teenager were to help this woman to design a Turkish modern, urban headscarf, tesettur, in a magazine. This type of headscarf, which is typical only for Turkey, is often called shulebash, by the name of its creator.

Shule Yuksel

The fight for the rights of women wearing headscarf ’s took her into custody in 1971. She was sentenced to 8 months in prison for insulting the presiding Cevdet Suna. She served her entire sentence, rejecting the president’s offer to apologize and reduce her prison sentence by 2 months.

The books she authored (“Suffering of The Youth”, “What Happened to Us”, “Women in Islam and Today” etc.) mainly address the problems in the Turkish society that concerned the writer. Shenler corresponded with numerous magazines until the beginning of the 2000’s.

At the funeral of Shenler, President R.T. Erdogan announced that the government will establish a library and museum dedicated to Shenler. In his speech, Erdogan said the following “She motivated countless young women to continue education without giving up their faith, and become individuals, who serve their nation”. [1]

The death of Shenler. one of the leaders in the struggle for women with headscarves, became the occasion to reflect on the role of headscarves in Turkish society, the obstacles connected with wearing it and the path the “headscarf” had gone through in republican Turkey.

The Religious Aspect of the Headscarf

Although during the development of Muslim society headscarf itself has undergone many changes, nevertheless, due to the opposition it has retained its existence until now. In the last 30 years, it has become a subject of active discussions, in both Muslim and western, non-Muslim countries, in the context of human rights, secular-religious clash and politics.

From the religious point of view the topic of headscarf in Islam has also been deeply talked over. There are many debates as to whether the holy book of Muslims, the Quran, contains a direct command from Allah to wear a headscarf. The text of The Quran itself is very complicated, and each line requires clarification. The words addressed to women about covering their bodies have taken place in the 31st verse of “Nur” surah. Different interpretations of the words and terms cause controversies in this question. The absence of literal precepts about covering head and hair allows some commentators to interpret the lines as an exhortation to cover the chest and décolletage.

Regardless of these discussions, headscarf and its types are the most important attributes of a Muslim woman. It should be noted that today wearing headscarves and Muslim garment covering the whole body, hijab, symbolizes woman’s femininity and faith in Allah in religious interpretations. But in the early stages of the formation of Islam, its main goal was to protect women from harassments.

The “Past Path” of Headscarf in Republican Turkey 

In the Republic of Turkey, one of the issues reflecting “islamization-secularization” or, more broadly, the “West-East” conflict is the so called “headscarf issue”. Judicial decisions on the headscarf, which is considered as “symbol” of political Islam and discussions about the types of headscarves are the bases of this problem. Though the ban on religious headscarves in the educational and state institutions was unconditionally accepted till 1960, the Islamic movements of 1961 activated due to the constitutional liberal provisions, challenged this ban, which was removed, embedded or changed in constitution from time to time. In fact, it is important to pay attention to the point that wearing headscarves was never legally banned by Ataturk. Actually, supporters of the headscarf ban are subconsciously under the influence of the “Hat Law” (Șapka kanunu) forced by Ataturk in 1925. It banned men from wearing the so-called hat “fez”. They were forced to wear hats of the western type. [2]

In the 1960s, discussions about headscarf intensified, as Hatice Babacan, a student of the faculty of Theology at Ankara University was expelled from the university in 1967. The problem was that she refused to take off her headscarf after long pressures, as a result of which the number of girls wearing headscarves at the university soon reached 6. Not paying attention to the pressures, Hatice Babacan was eventually expelled from the university, which led to protests by teachers and students. [3] In 1973, advocate Emine Aykenar, who was wearing a headscarf in the Chamber of Advocates, was fired by the head of the Chamber. In the 1977-78 academic year, in the Imam Hatip school for girls, 215 girls were punished for wearing headscarf. [4]

In 1978, the Ministry of Labor of the “Republican People’s ” government officially banned working with a headscarf for the first time. This was for all the social institutions. In 1979, along with the headscarf wearers, some punishments were applied to unshaven students..

In 1982, December 20, the Council of higher Education, CHE banned wearing headscarves in educational institutions in terms of dress code. [5] However, only 2 years later the ban was removed and was only allowed to wear turban (türban) covering hair. In 1978, listening to the words of the President Kenan Evren “There is a danger of Extremism in Turkey”, CHE again banned wearing turban. [6]

In 1987, the government of Turgut Ozal passed a law to lift the headscarf ban, but the President Evren exercised his right of veto. In 1989, December 28, the CHE declared the decision of 1982 invalid and left the decision making about headscarves to the universities. [7] This led to a number of controversies and inconsistencies in the country. 

Protest against the ban of headscarf in 1997

After the “Velvet Revolution” of 1997, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed the ban of wearing religious clothing in educational institutions once more under the pressure of the National Security Council and generals. [8] The situation gained a new tension over the issue of headscarf when the “Virtue” party, one of the regular parties of the “National Viewpoint”, entering into the political processes, won about 15% of the votes in the Parliamentary elections on April 18, 1999 and at the opening of the newly elected parliament the party MP Merve Kavakçı came to the parliament wearing a headscarf. Before that no woman had dared to set foot in that “citadel” of Ataturk with a headscarf. [9] The Republican People’s party accepted it with indignation. They even filed a lawsuit against the woman and demanded a death penalty. In 2002, when the Justice and Development party came to power, the prospect of solving this problem became more than real in terms of heated arguments and processes of EU membership. Although, they did not try to solve this sensitive problem immediately after coming to power, the example of the party members and leaders spoke about their attitude towards the issue of the headscarf. So, in 2002, after the elections, 14 women out of 25 members of the government headed by Gül were wearing headscarves. Gül’s wife Hayrunnisa was among them. The latter couldn’t enter Ankara’s Linguistic and Historical-Geographical University, the Faculty of the Arabic Language and Literature because of wearing a headscarf. On this occasion, she applied to the European Court of Human Rights in 2002, but was forced to take back her application, because her husband became prime minister.

Abdullah Gül’s wife, Hayrunnisa Gül

Back in 1998, Leyla Sahin, a student at Ankara University, the Faculty of Medicine, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in connection with a disciplinary sanction imposed on her for wearing a headscarf. Already in 2005 her lawsuit application was rejected. [10]

In 2008, the ruling Justice and Development Party tried to find a legal solution to the headscarf problem which had been separating the society since 1990s and was perceived as a symbol of political Islam. At the beginning of the year, along with the parties Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Justice and Development Party (AKP) came up with a legislative initiative, the goal of which was to eliminate the ban on wearing headscarves in universities and public institutions. Therefore, the aim of the new initiative of political powers was to change the 10th and 42nd points of the Constitution. [11] Though, in February 9, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) approved the bill, Republican People’s Party (CHP) decided to challenge the amendment in the Constitutional Court which was considered to be one of the guardians of Kemalism. The latter, in fact, exceeding its powers enshrined in the Constitution, repealed the February 9th decision on June 5 and the issue of the headscarf remained in the air. On September 30, 2013 the “Democratization Package” put forward by R.T. Erdogan came to solve the issue. According to the package, women wearing religious headscarves now had the right to work in state institutions (except for the Armed Forces, Courts and the Police). In March, 2014 the package was almost completely adopted in the Parliament.

Shule Shenler and Emine Erdogan. Shule introduced Tayyip Erdogan to his future wife.

Thus, presenting the issue of the headscarf from the point of view of fundamental human rights and skillfully using the membership in the EU, the AKP gave the desired solution to the issue.

The issue of headscarf in Pamuk’s novel “Snow”

The issue of headscarf being discussed in the social-political discourse for a long time, was also reflected in the literature. In the background of the intensification of EU-Turkey relations Pamuk became the writer who reacted to that important question. In his novel “Snow” the west-east collision is particularly presented through the issue of the headscarf ban. In 2006, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was recognized as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. His books were translated into over 60 languages and published in more than 100 countries. The novel “Snow” published in 2002, was author’s “first and last political novel” according to him and was recognized as one of the 10 best books of the year by New York Times Book Review in 2004.

While the overriding motive of this postmodernist novel is the pursuit of happiness and one’s own self, the political component is the background for the realization of activities. In the novel depicting the beginning of 1990s, Pamuk succeeded in presenting and portraying the main bearers of the ideological directions existing at the givenstage of the country’s social and political life and their attitude towards a number of important issues in the country. Emphasizing the problem of headscarf which had been discussed in the political-social discourse of Turkey for many years, the author particularly touched upon the ban of wearing headscarves in educational institutions. As a proponent of secularism and a bearer of Western morals, Orhan Pamuk didn’t present this problem unilaterally. In the novel, both the fear of endangering the secular status because of the spread of headscarf and the protection of Turkish women and girls who had been wearing headscarves for years and were forced to give it up in a short period of time can be seen. 

Currently we can say that discussions on headscarf have calmed down in Turkey, but they have not completely disappeared in the political-social discourse.


[1]Başkan Erdoğan Şule Yüksel Şenler’in cenaze töreninde açıklamalarda bulundu |Video., “ahaber”, 29.08.19,


[2] Տեր-Մաթևոսյան Վ․, «Իսլամը Թուրքիայի հասարակական-քաղաքական կյանքում(1970-2001թ)», ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2008թ․, էջ 179

[3] “1968’de Başörtüsü, ilk Fakülte işali, 80’lerde “Türban” ve Kenen Evren”, Ankara-BIA Haber Merkezi, 09.06.2008


[4] Adnan Oktay, “28 Șubat süreci öncesi ev sonrasında Türkiyede başöüsü yasağı”,


[5] Toruk İbrahim, “Türkiyede başörtüsü sorunu ve yazılımedyada sunumu”, Türkiye Araştırmaları Dergesi, s. 486

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elizabeth Özdalga, The veiling issue, official secularism and popular islam in Modern Turkey, Curzon Press, Richmond, 1998, pp.39-47

[8] Տեր-Մաթևոսյան Վ․, «Իսլամը Թուրքիայի հասարակական-քաղաքական կյանքում(1970-2001թ)», ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2008թ․, էջ 181

[9] Ibid.

[10] “AİHM, Leyla Șahin’in türbanla ilgili itirazını reddetti”, Hürriyet gazetesi, 10.11.2005

[11] Սաֆրաստյան Ռ․, Մելքոնյան Ռ․ և ուրիշներ, Թուրքիայի Հանրապետության պատմության դասագիրք, ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2018թ․, էջ 260

[12] “Türban tartışmaları 60’larda başamıştı”, Cumhuriyet gazetesi, 05.10.2010


[13] Սաֆրաստյան Ռ․, Մելքոնյան Ռ․ և ուրիշներ, Թուրքիայի Հանրապետության պատմության դասագիրք, ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2018թ․, էջ 288


1․Տեր-Մաթևոսյան Վ․, «Իսլամը Թուրքիայի հասարակական-քաղաքական կյանքում(1970-2001թ)», ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2008թ․

2․ Սաֆրաստյան Ռ․, Մելքոնյան Ռ․ և ուրիշներ, Թուրքիայի Հանրապետության պատմության դասագիրք, ՀՀ ԳԱԱ Արևելագիտության ինստիտուտ, Երևան 2018թ․

3․ Toruk İbrahim, “Türkiyede başörtüsü sorunu ve yazılımedyada sunumu”, Türkiye Araştırmaları Dergesi

4․ Elizabeth Özdalga, The veiling issue, official secularism and popular islam in Modern Turkey, Curzon Press, Richmond, 1998

5․Metin Toprak , Nasuh Uslu, “The Headscarf Controversy in Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social research 11(1) 2009, 43-67

6.Orhan Pamuk. “Kar”. Istanbul:İletişim Yayınları, 2002.







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Author: Anahit Karapetyan           © All rights reserved. 

Translator: Liana Sargsyan