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Erdoğan counters opposition leader’s attempt to corner gov’t over headscarf freedom

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday proposed amending the constitution to enshrine a woman’s right to wear a headscarf after the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) introduced a bill on Tuesday to do the same, in a move to counter an apparent attempt by the CHP to corner Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Turkish media reported.

A strict version of secularism was in place after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and wearing headscarves in public institutions was prohibited in the 1980s.

The ruling AKP abolished a ban on the wearing of headscarves at Turkish universities in 2010, while the same ban was abolished for civil servants in 2017.

Although the prohibition is no longer in place, Erdoğan keeps alluding to it to shore up his base, and the pro-government media is stoking the fears of AKP voters that the CHP, once it comes to power, will reintroduce the ban.

According to observers, the CHP’s bill, titled “Bill to prohibit the compulsion of women [to wear or not to wear] clothing other than that required for the exercise of their profession,” is intended to allay the fears of the AKP base.

“Women employed in public institutions and organizations and engaged in a profession affiliated with professional associations and supreme organizations having the character of public institutions shall not be subjected to coercion in violation of fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the wearing or not wearing of clothing other than the robes, gowns, uniforms, etc., required to be worn in the course of the profession they are engaged in,” the bill stipulates.

At his party’s parliamentary group meeting, President Erdoğan said in reference to the headscarf proposal introduced by the CHP in parliament, “The CHP chairman allegedly confesses [the CHP’s sins] about the struggle we have waged our entire lives. There is no such issue in Turkey at the moment. If you are honest about the headscarf issue, then let’s find a solution at the level of the constitution, not the law.”

CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu announced his party’s decision to propose the bill on Monday, prompting mixed reactions on both sides of the political spectrum.

“OK, let’s stop the abuse of the headscarf. But on the day when inflation has broken a historic record, when the country is collapsing under poverty and when the world is welcoming the resistance of Iranian women, should that be our agenda?” tweeted prominent Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who has been living in exile in Germany.

“Should conservative voters trust those who scare them, saying, ‘They will ban your hijab if we leave’? Or those who want to create legal guarantees so that no one can ban the headscarf anymore? I think the second,” prominent liberal author Mustafa Akyol tweeted about the announcement.

“This means that you can’t fight the right by becoming right yourself. The antidote to right-wing politics is not right-wing politics,” Ahmet Şık from the Workers Party of Turkey (TİP), also a former journalist, tweeted on Wednesday, following Erdoğan’s announcement.

Leaders of the political parties also issued statements on Kılıçdaroğlu’s move.

When asked about Kılıçdaroğlu’s statement, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the AKP’s far-right ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said the headscarf ban is no longer an issue in Turkey and that if such a bill is introduced in parliament, the MHP won’t back it.

“I find Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s call for the legal guarantee of freedom to wear the headscarf in all areas very valuable for peace in society. I call on all political parties and deputies to support this bill,” former Turkish prime minister and Future Party (GP) Chairman Ahmet Davutoğlu tweeted.

In an interview with the Artı Gerçek newspaper, parliamentary group deputy chair Meral Danış Beştaş of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said her party would support the CHP’s proposal.

“As the HDP, we are against all forms of domination over women’s clothes and bodies,” Beştaş was quoted as saying.

“In this country, there is hunger, poverty, injustice, corruption, prohibitions and the problem of asylum seekers. The headscarf problem in Turkey has been solved, it has been left behind. To put the headscarf problem before these problems is both a genuflection to the political opponent and ignorance of politics,” tweeted Muharrem İnce, former CHP member and presidential contender who now chairs the Fatherland Party (MP).

“We are the leading political movement in the struggle for rights and freedoms,” AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik said, adding that President Erdoğan would make a statement on the matter on Wednesday.

“Our president’s statements will be a very strong signature in the history of our struggle for rights and freedoms,” Çelik said.

In an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Derya Yanık, minister of family and social services, said, “I wish he [Kılıçdaroğlu] was sincere,” adding that the CHP leader wanted to “clear the CHP’s record on the headscarf and freedom of belief.”

According to Turkey’s secular circles, the headscarf is a symbol of religious conservatism, and they accuse Erdoğan of abusing the headscarf ban to polarize society and consolidate his conservative grass roots.

The president also came under fire for his policies regarding headscarved women described by many as hypocritical since scores of them in Turkey were detained and arrested for alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement in the aftermath of a July 15, 2016 coup attempt, and many of them were subjected to strip-searches and harassment in prisons and detention centers, according to widespread claims brought to the floor of parliament by HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu in late 2020.

Erdoğan and his ruling AKP accuse the movement, inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt and label it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

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