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Photo of women shout slogans to protest against a ban on the wearing Islamic head scarves in universities, in Ankara, Turkey.

Women shout slogans to protest against a ban on the wearing Islamic head scarves in universities, in Ankara, Turkey.

Photograph by Burhan Ozbilici, AP

Roff Smith

National Geographic

Published October 11, 2013

Turkish women who want to wear the hijab – the traditional Islamic headscarf covering the head and hair, but not the face – to civil service jobs and government offices will be able to do so now that the Turkish government has relaxed its decades-long restriction on wearing the headscarf in state institutions.

The new rules, which don't apply to workers in the military or judiciary, come into effect immediately and were put into place to address concerns that the restrictions on hijab were discouraging women from conservative backgrounds from seeking government jobs or higher education.

"A dark time eventually comes to an end," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to the parliament. "Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it."

Ataturk's Fashion Police

Turkey's restrictions on wearing overtly religious-oriented attire are rooted in the founding of the modern, secular Turkish state, when the republic's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, introduced a series of clothing regulations designed to keep religious symbolism out of the civil service. The regulations were part of a sweeping series of reforms that altered virtually every aspect of Turkish life—from the civil code to the alphabet to education to social integration of the sexes.

The Western dress code at that time, though, was aimed at men. The fez—the short, conical, red-felt cap that had been in vogue in Turkey since the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II made it part of the official national attire in 1826—was banished. Ataturk himself famously adopted a Panama hat to accent his Western-style gray linen suit, shirt, and tie when he toured the country in the summer of 1925 to sell his new ideas to a deeply conservative population. That autumn, the Hat Law of 1925 was passed, making European-style men's headwear de rigueur and punishing fez-wearers with lengthy sentences of imprisonment at hard labor, and even a few hangings.

Curiously enough, Ataturk left women's attire alone. In granting women the freedom to decide for themselves whether they wanted to cover their heads, it was more or less assumed they would eventually give up the headscarf as the new, secular Turkish identity took hold. Many did.

Fall From Favor

By the 1970s, though, and particularly after Turkey's military coup in 1980, discouraging headscarves had taken on the force of law. The headscarf was banned in government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools. By the 1980s, these lengths of cloth had taken on hot political connotations.

Critics worry that Turkey's relaxation of the headscarf ban will blur the line between religion and the state and could herald a stealthy march toward an Islamist state. When the repeal was announced this week, Turkey's opposition party declared it "a serious blow to the secular republic."

Others see it as a long-overdue reform. "The lifting of the ban on headscarves ends a disgraceful human rights abuse that took away futures of generations of women in Turkey," says U.K.-based Turkish academic and commentator Ziya Meral. "Yet this is likely to create tensions, particularly in western Turkey, once women wearing headscarves start appearing in workplaces and becoming more visible in certain sectors.

"The challenge that lies before Turkey is not whether or not Turkey is becoming more religious," he emphasizes, "but whether or not Turkey will finally move on from a rigid, state-controlled public space into a pluralistic society that can accommodate different ethnicities and beliefs."

Europe's Hijab Restrictions

Turkey's lifting of its ban on the hijab comes at a time when a number of countries are debating or imposing restrictions on traditional Muslim head coverings – particularly full-face veils such as the burqa and niqab, which are already banned in France and Belgium. Italy has banned full-face coverings under counterterrorism laws since the 1970s. The Dutch government has also drafted legislation banning the burqa. Some German states forbid it, as did many cities in Spain until the Spanish high court declared the bans unconstitutional earlier this year. Canada prohibits the wearing of veils during citizenship ceremonies, while British politicians are discussing restrictions on headscarves and veils in schools and in courts.

In a celebrated case in London last month, a burqa-wearing woman was ordered to raise her veil while giving evidence on the grounds that having a witness conceal her face while testifying was inconsistent with the principles of British justice. She was permitted to keep her veil lowered during the rest of the proceedings.

Europe and the West aren't the only regions grappling with these questions. In Morocco, veils and headscarves are discouraged, and Tunisia only recently relaxed its ban on wearing them. Syria banned the full-face veil for university students in 2010 – but President Bashar al-Assad rescinded the ban the following year when he sought to appease religious conservatives as the country slid into civil war.

Arguments for banning or restricting the traditional headwear range from security at airports to concerns about divisiveness and perceived polarization of society to preserving the religious neutrality of the state.

A Woman's Perspective

Much of the negativity about headscarves and veils comes from a lack of understanding about what they mean and why women choose wear them, says Shalina Litt, a popular Muslim radio presenter in Birmingham, England, who lectures and blogs about women's rights and Islamic issues and wears the niqab herself. "For me," she says, "it is an expression of faith, and modesty is a part of that. At the same time, I live in the real world. When I go to an airport and it is time to show my ID, I lift my veil—whether it is to a man or a woman—and just get on with it. That's life. Those security rules are in place to protect us all, and there is nothing in the teaching of Islam that says we shouldn't go along with those rules."

Wearing the veil can be surprisingly empowering, says Litt. In recalling how she adopted the niqab gradually over time, moving from loose-fitting clothing to a headscarf to occasionally wearing the niqab to becoming a full-time wearer as her relationship with her faith evolved, she spoke of the first time she sat down to talk with a man while wearing the veil: "I thought: Wow! This is liberating. He is having to listen to my words, not judge me by my clothes or my face, but paying attention purely to what I have to say."

47 comments
Mike Holt
Mike Holt

Freedom always comes with responsibility...something moslems seem to have a lot of trouble understanding....not unexpected as mohammedism doesn't teach morals or responsibility.

The hijab, burqa and niqab are all political expressions of militant mohammedism....and as Mighty Mo was a pedophile, philanderer, plunderer, thief, liar, slaver, and failed businessman, he compensated for his lack of brains by inventing a fake religion. Unfortunately, billions of people have been fooled by this fake...just as the Mormons were fooled by Joseph Smith. Fake prophets are everywhere. But only fools follow them.

Islam is a political, social, legal and military IDEOLOGY wrapped in a thin skin of religion. Calling islam a religion is like calling Nazism a religion. They both have elements of religious behaviour, but they are definitely not religions. 

http://islam4infidels.com/ban-islam-stickers/

Arshiya Abdullah
Arshiya Abdullah

freedom means your free to wear anything, how dose this come under freedom, a women is free to walk in swim suit in beaches, she is not free to cover.. why are they such double standards in the community....

ASHOK GORE
ASHOK GORE

Wearing any dress, so long as it is not indecent by the standards of the respective society, should be permissible.However, such standards have to evolve with societal consensus and not by religious compulsion.

ROBERT Skeels
ROBERT Skeels

My wife is Turkish and I know many Turkish friends who are deepily concerned about this development and see it as the further erroding of secularism in Turkey. They are already deeply distrustful of the current government and what they feel is its attempt to reintroduce religion into Turkish administration after the people had done so much to eradicate its influence in the war that created the Republic. They believe that religion has no place in government and that the upholders of religious involvement in modern Turkey are of the same ilk as those who opposed them after WW1 and who were partly responsible for the perilous state the country then found itself in. My mother-in-law is a fairly religous woman but she is also a keen supporter of Ataturk and modern Turkey who is very much against the lifting of the ban. 

Oluyomi Yomi-Momoh
Oluyomi Yomi-Momoh

The factor of faith as argued by some to defend the justification for wearing the burqa or niqab is not tenable in the true sense of the word, as accepting in the faith issue suddenly gives credence to the slaughtering innocent and harmless people by the religious extremist who also happen to be the most rigorous proponent of the wearing of these religious dresses. As much as it is democratic for people to have the freedom to wear what they choose , the world should not loose sight of the fact that this is a Jihad, and pushing in the wearing of the burqa, niqab and hijab on other cultures that are not Arab or Islamic is the soft face of it, while the September 11 by Al-Qaeda, Boko-Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab of Somalia and all the terror they have been unleashing on the world is the hard face of this Jihad. 

This is not much in the realm of rational domain as many of the comments had opined or many other views that have been sympathetic with the need for freedom in dresses. It is almost completely spiritual. After all, religion and faith are spiritual in origin. There must be a way to fight the efforts and hope of Darkness and it's agents to put mankind in a state where all progress and great achievement of mankind in science, technology etc is lost. The Taliban and it's hold on Afghanistan before they were ousted by America and NATO is a sample of what the Jihad hopes to achieve on the world. And people are made(brainwashed) to believe it's all in the service of God to put all progress of humanity into ruins. Let the world wake up.     

Kaeli Burrell
Kaeli Burrell

Problem about the coverings being attributed to faith is that the coverings are not a part of the religion they follow. The covering of women is a part of the Islam culture that has given us so many problems in the past and now. I see covering the women as not being their choice so much as culture telling them they are bad and will be punished if they don't. We have been having a rise in Islamic issues and head covering of women as well as honour killings in Canada. It isn't a good thing in my view. If it was all peaceful, then great, but it isn't. 

The other coin though, is taking it all off in the Western culture. Not good either, and gives lots of pressure to follow. A nice middle ground would be best. Noone forced or feeling forced to do either.

Shalina Litt
Shalina Litt

Wow Just had the chance to browse through the comments. I'd like to thank Roff Smith for taking time out to interview me.  Thank you also, to those who defended a woman's right to wear as much as she likes. As for those who appear to be against the niqab I can only add by saying my comment about my discovery that men would have to listen to what I said was not my main motivation behind wearing the veil.  It is a practice that took me years to build an understanding of why I want to wear it.  Therefore explaining in a couple of sentences is near impossible. 

When I teach I choose not to wear the veil for a bunch of reasons.  I discuss many of these things in blogs due to the same questions being raised.  But ultimately I shared my experience in the hope that people could appreciate the meaning behind this belief, which Roff didn't have space to convey. 

Jaswinder Gill
Jaswinder Gill

ban is not democracy or modern living . let women decide what they want to wear and same goes for men.   tolerance is key to all. why follow west for things they demand.     

Bat Man
Bat Man

the world is so tense, let the woman decide what she wants to wear. Does it matter whether the lady wears a head scarf, face mask or a bikini. why should people care so much. I think dress codes are over rated, western society especially should learn to live with the fact that there are millions of people who choose to hide in the long dresses and scarfs. it certainly doesn't bother me at all because Im tolerant of all cultures and religion. we should respect it instead of criticizing them just cox we feel uncomfortable. A Muslim women might feel uncomfortable communicating with a woman in bikini beach wear, but that dont mean she has to hate her, criticize or mock western way of living. Its just wrong that we are so less tolerant of people. its just sad. Muslim women should not be targeted they should be allowed to wear what they want. Thats my firm opinion.

Fajar Setiawan
Fajar Setiawan

Islamophobic detected. WARNING! this article will soon become banish-that-religion topic.

E. Booze
E. Booze

What kind of nonsense it this.   "Wearing the veil can be surprisingly empowering, says Litt. In recalling how she adopted the niqab gradually over time, moving from loose-fitting clothing to a headscarf to occasionally wearing the niqab to becoming a full-time wearer as her relationship with her faith evolved, she spoke of the first time she sat down to talk with a man while wearing the veil: "I thought: Wow! This is liberating. He is having to listen to my words, not judge me by my clothes or my face, but paying attention purely to what I have to say."

Why would this woman assume that every man she talks to is checking her out.  Any decent man is going to be able to handle a conversation with decent well dressed  women with out leering or judging  her looks or dress.   Head scarves are one thing but to think a woman need to cover up her entire face is incomprehensible to me .   Part of communication is facial expressions.   How can you feel like you are communicating with a person who feels the need to hide.   I find it very frustrating that their culture wants to keep a wedge between equality of men and women.    Seriously I would not feel comfortable seeking services from a professional that only has her eyes peeking out.   So the covering up is dragging the women of Islam back to the dark ages.  And it is reinforcing the belief that men cannot control their thoughts.  

Umut Yıldırım
Umut Yıldırım

Is obviously not a TURKISH CULTURE ! Is obviously not a FREEDOM!. 


Corruptions in government, make symbols among women in Turkey and these guys just claim they are on the side of current POWER OF THE BLOODY CORRUPTED GOVERNMENT.

Ian Maxwell
Ian Maxwell

Let's be honest here. These women are like slaves at the end of the American Civil War who did not want freedom. When people only know a certain way of life, they tend to stick to it even if seems regressive to an outsider. There is no question about this type of headgear being symptomatic of cultures in which women are seen as property. No doubt "intellectual" Muslims may be inclined to debate the point but we cannot over look realities like female circumcision, honour killings & arranged marriages. By the same token, people are not told what they can or cannot wear in a free society. As much as the acceptance of such costume goes against the grain in free & educated societies, this is what we must do. These women or their daughters or perhaps their grand daughters, will eventually throw off these oppressive garments. We just have to patient, provide choices & allow nature to run its course.

barrett b.
barrett b.

I have to admit that I did not know much about headscarves, hijabs, or burqas a year ago. I was under the impression they were a form of control over women in a male dominated society. After reading on the subject I see that in most ways this is a misconception. It is about modesty and faith. I think a woman should be able to choose what she wears, and if her faith and desire is to wear a hijab, then she should be able to wear one. Though in some areas were extremists take this to a whole other level it becomes less about faith, and more about domination and segregation of the sexes.

Mustafa Sasmaz
Mustafa Sasmaz

Hijab or Hijap as a word is not even bloody  Turkish!  The current government in power is uprooting what is embedded in Turkish culture and Turkish Mythology and cheapening deep rooted values with Arabic equivalent!

Turkish women, especially, people who live in the countryside,  used to wear very elegant looking head scarf  including my family members; my mother and sisters, neighboring ladies and so on!  But now the head-scarf scene has been manipulated by Mr Erdogan and his cronies and we have now this hideous looking head gear!

 In the name of freedom, Erdogan subversively goad masses of Turkish women to wear this ugly looking head gear which is in essence is Arabic! 



El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Ah..freedom to wear what wants! Hogwash! The United States has bans on what one can wear or not and it is supposed to be a free country. (Actually no country is "free") In some states if a man was to wear a dress in public he would be arrested. What about wearing "nothing"? One can in certain places but not in "public".  See what would happen if one wore a Nazi officers uniform down main street! The wearing headress by Islamic women is merely a means of control. Ask what would happen if Islamic women were to wear a bikine in Iran.  That being said what really should happen within the Islamic religion is that men should be required to wear a burka in public...but of course that will not happen.  At one time Catholic women were required to wear head dress in church.  Whatevere the required dress, it is all a matter of money, power and control in one form or another.

Louis Cruse
Louis Cruse

The use of supernaturalism to manipulate and control people is the world's oldest confidence scheme, it relies on the ritual abuse of children at their most impressionable stage by adults who have themselves been made childish for life by artifacts of the primitive mind.- Your Mom on a CNN comment.

craig hill
craig hill

This is revolutionary, i hope, and not reactionary.  To me, it doesn't undermine secularism but underscores it.  Before, banning certain clothing was paying a religious attention to it; now, letting people wear what they want (bring back the ridiculous-looking fez!) disregards the religious aspect of it.  Their society is now more secular than ever, on the face of it.  If the society becomes more religious about their clothing than they were because women may wear the veil and wants to force their religion on the society by making religious ways governemntal ways, then they will have gone too far and society will have to revert to clothing bans to avoid a return to Islamic governance.    

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

Headscarf tolerable. Full-face covering not. The burqa and niqab are cynical, politicised, divisive garments that I believe are detrimental to, and have no place in British society.  They are an insult to men as much as women. I would sacrifice the rights of those who choose to wear it for the rights of those who don't.

The rule should be: No full-face coverings in pubic places without good secular reason. In fact all exceptions to the law on a religious basis are extremely divisive - that goes for religious slaughter, carrying cultural weapons and for sure garments like the niqab and burqa that actively reject our culture and tradition. 

We should not pander to "uncovered meat" syndrome.

Suhail Shafi
Suhail Shafi

I dislike the idea of governments dictating to their populace how and how not to dress. Turkey dropping the ban on women wearing is a very welcome step in the right direction. 

Aditya Akhauri
Aditya Akhauri

The whole point of the head scarf being liberating as said by Shalina Litt is wrong. The headscarf gives a position of advantage to the person wearing the headscarf. That person can see the other person who is not covered and judge him/her but not the other way around. 

Personal preferences have to be respected but people who wear the scarf willingly in free societies enjoy this privilege of not being judged but being a judge. And who says, they are not being judged? They bwill be judged for other reasons. 

In any form covering the face is undemocratic.

Redjeb Tchakar
Redjeb Tchakar

@ Marcus Stone : "Brainwashed"  when is nothing on the head , just look at the old family picture of your grand-grand mothers to see how they covered head,see the picture of the mother of the prophet Jesus Christ how she was covered head ! The amorality,nakedness,erotica and pornography is the root of the all evils,which destroying Western society !

Samin Huq
Samin Huq

I assume you're a Christian right? And therefore a xenophobic racist bigot. It's hilarious you call Muhammad (pbuh) a pedophile when the likes of you have sexually abused children time and time again. Slaver? Isn't that what you guys used to do to black people? Christians are responsible for most of this world's evil. Not Muslims OR Jews.

Samin Huq
Samin Huq

Wearing headscarves is no more a sign of regress than wearing tank tops or short skirts. People should be given the choice to wear either type of clothing. Banning headscarves has nil to do with combating extremist elements.

Bernard Colbert
Bernard Colbert

@Shalina Litt Over 10 years ago I visited a friend who was working in the Levant, and it was a very enlightening experience.


Walking through Beirut we saw women in religious dress walking arm in arm with women in mid-riff tops and low cut jeans and piercings. They did not seem to have a problem with how each other dressed. We sat is cafes and there were women at the next table in hijabs sharing a water pipe.


What struck me was that the wearing of the hijab was a personal choice for the women. They probably have a myriad of reasons for making that choice. However, what I also noticed was that etiquette for interacting with women in hijabs is different to women in secular clothing.

Also I think that there is a stereotype of women who wear the hijab are passive and retiring. I know a project manager who wears the hijab, and she is very tough, a hard negotiator and certainly not passive. Many men have been shocked when they assumed they could push her around and discovered they couldn't.

Mike Holt
Mike Holt

@Fajar Setiawan Yes, ban islam. Islam is a political, social, legal and military IDEOLOGY wrapped in a thin skin of religion. Calling islam a religion is like calling Nazism a religion. They both have elements of religious behaviour, but they are definitely not religions. Wake up mozlems. You have been fooled for 1,400 years!


barrett b.
barrett b.

@Fajar Setiawan i believe this would fall under the lets debate the topic in an adult manner, and try to see that cultural differences are beautiful and often misunderstood. So viewpoints of all, are as objective as is their comments. Through discussion comes understanding. Or at least that is the hope right? 

Faiza Ansari
Faiza Ansari

@Ian Maxwell  Well some how I couldn't stop laughing when u mention arranged marriages! seriously you read one article of a girl forced to marry you believe 100% muslims girls are forced . 90% of my friends had their husbands chosen by their families, especially focusing on his education, job means to support his future family. And almost all are happy ....west needs to get a better perspective of many eastern concepts. Honor killing, circumcision are crimes of islamic society but they do not amount to even affecting 50% of the population. Doesn't western societies have their own specific nature of crimes??? (i recently read an article about a mother who starved her three year old to death, so should I believe all White woman do this!!!)As for nature to take it's course, dude I see a reverse trend. My mother's generation never wore hijab, but my generation does along side studying in universities and working. I too work with hijab, it never affected my dealing with my patients. 

Fajar Setiawan
Fajar Setiawan

@Ian Maxwell why is it an oppression, if most of them choose it. as a matter of fact, why do you have the urge that ALL person should dress the same way as you? I remember something called "local wisdom", and to some extend, it also applies here.

AF Escabeche
AF Escabeche

@El Gabilon since the hijab is apparently worn for the benefit of men that are not able able to control themselves, perhaps a chastity belt for men might be more appropriate. Seriously. Why punish the victim for the sins of the potential perpetrators?

Minka Abla
Minka Abla

@Suhail Shafi Then I would like to ask you whether the Turkish Government would allow me to wear bikini in public or in my work place because my religion requires that.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

@Aditya Akhauri  I agree, and when she says "liberating" she's also saying that she needs some form of self-imposed agoraphobia to have a conversation with a male. Well in some cultures, where an ankle or arm showing practically makes you a harlot - or a T shirt and shorts can create a riot, I can understand that. In our culture I believe there is a lot to be said for inurement and we'd do well not to buy into "uncovered meat" syndrome. Repression creates these men who cannot control themselves at the sight of a bit of flesh.

When I look at the burqa or niqab I see somebody with hangups who doesn't wish to properly engage with me or my (host) culture. 

A young lady who was a friend of my stepdaughter started to cover up - saying she respected herself too much not to. Which implies that those who don't cover up don't respect themselves. Not only do I find that arrogant, it is deeply cynical.

Pam Thorley
Pam Thorley

@Redjeb Tchakar Our Lord Jesus Christ was not a "prophet" .  Your assumption that those things are "destroying Western Society" is your view but it is incorrect. The wearing of the burqa is offensive to western peoples as we have a very long history of being open with all peoples, we don't hide from other people, and nor do we have men who wear it to avoid detection and capture when escaping after committing crimes.  May I add that anyone who does not wish to live according to western governments, laws and traditions in a western country has Freedom of Choice. Integrate and live as western people do, or leave. There is no compromise.


Baris Seven
Baris Seven

@Marcus Stone It takes one to know one as they say! Headscarf is a matter to Muslim societies. Why does it matter to nonmuslims that they are so worried about more women preferring to wear the hijab especially if that country is a predominantly muslim one! Why does it matter to them when Turkey chooses to adopt democratic reforms that also lift the bans on their freedom of living their religion as they so choose! Arrogance?! Mind your own business or your own problems...in your own societies. Leave others alone...

Samin Huq
Samin Huq

Ban Christianity too. The religion of the biggest murderers.

Ian Maxwell
Ian Maxwell

@AF Escabeche @El Gabilon Well, because they can. You are both absolutely right but we can not provide freedom to people by denying choices. Religion is like a nail in that the more you hammer it, the deeper in it goes. It thrives on discrimination & persecution so ironically, the way we will be rid of these things is by accepting them. These women regardless of how conservative they may be now, will eventually lose there fervor through absence of adversity & cultural exposure.

Mustafa Sasmaz
Mustafa Sasmaz

@Baris Seven @Marcus Stone I think you are missing a point by a massive distance!.  Let's separate the head scarf from 'hicab, hijap'!.  Head-scraf my mother wears is not a political tool tht Mr Erdogan is able to manipulate - but this ugly looking head gear called is the result of subversive manipulation by the current Turkish government in power!.  The word itself, the way this piece of clothing is not even Turkish! - so it the result of brain - washing excerises by Erdogan and his close circle!   Marcus Stone has said a lot  by the phrase he used 'brain washed'! Yes, I agree!.  The overwhelming majority of Turkish Public is brain washed on this issue!

Tur Ka
Tur Ka

@Baris Seven @Marcus Stone Yes, arrogance driven by a pathological sense of exceptionalism. In fact, the root cause is the ignorance, a very widespread one. that blinds their eyes to their own shortcomings.

Minka Abla
Minka Abla

I totally agree with Mustafa Sasmaz. There is scarf culture in Turkey but it is not used for political reasoning. Also, according to the existing head scarf culture, women do not hesitate to show part of their hair either whereas the new culture's women cover their head very tight. Moreover, they wear very disgusting because they cover their heads but they make up and wear tight jeans under at the same time. According to Islam, the main reason of covering your head is trying not to be attractive to men. However, this new evangelist islam culture is all political and abuses anything possible.

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