IR & Politics

Türban and the State


There are many terms defining the clothes used by women to cover their bodies/hair for religious or cultural reasons. Whatever the reasons are, nowadays, they are highly controversial and handled in a quite reductionist way under the shade of fundamentalist movements which adopt violence. Burka, burkini, türban, hijab are some of these widely used terms. In order to discuss them by their place in a specific society, first, we should specify that/those which has/have transformed into a conflictual issue. Concerning Turkey, the widespread and highly politicised term is “türban”[1]. Through this essay, I will focus on its sociological background and its relationship with the Turkish State. Also, I will try to approach it as a materialised reflection of gender relations in the urban area.

Citizen Identity

 First of all, it is useful to mention early practices of the Turkish State. The Turkish modernisation process, blended with westernisation, accelerated in the 19th Century and from the establishment of a republican regime, turned into a state-driven social transformation. This phase of Turkish modernisation is characterised by its rigid top-down structure which tries to shape the social structure within the lack of a necessary economic basis. The economic aspect is as important as it is essential since a democratic structure can only be based upon a complicated society in terms of classes.

In spite of verbally inclusive citizen descriptions in constitutional articles, practice demonstrates that the Turkish nation-state has an implicit citizen image which is based on a Turkish – Sunni identity reconciled with republican values. Among these principles, laicism has a central importance. I would like to open a parenthesis for the Sunni identity since it can be seen as contradictory considering the character of the Kemalist elite. Firstly, in the Turkish tradition, as can be observed through the Ottoman Empire, Sunnism matured in urban culture used to function as the vault of civilization. By its nature, it totally differs from Vahhabism in contrast to today’s widespread and deliberately superficial perception. Secondly, it should be underlined that the Sunni identity is referred to in rather a cultural way. In the final analysis, there is a kind of compromise between the Kemalists and religion. The important fact is that the content of this exclusive Turkish-Sunni identity has undergone a dramatic change, particularly after the military intervention of 1980. Hitherto, the religious elements have become heavily involved in politics.

The state structure is quite penetrable for these citizens with the mentioned background in terms of social and economic rights. It is quite visible that the people who are ‘incompatible’ have secondary status. The same formula persists with some crucial nuances; the certain thing is that Turkish citizenship cannot achieve inclusivity. Especially considering that AKP (the Justice and Development Party) has been ruling since 2002, these nuances have become more and more noticeable. Due to the fact that the peripheral power, claimed to be represented by AKP, invaded the core, it is still the revanchist reflexes that dominate the political processes.

Türban as the Symbol of Adaptation

Türban is a specific representation referring to the way of modernisation of the migrant population who came from the different parts of Anatolia[2] to the big cities during the time of accelerating industrialisation starting from 1950s. Today, following descendants and newcomers who share neither a rural nor urban identity, are still experiencing a transition. By the term ‘transition’, I do not refer to a linear process since in this case, I am in part criticising from a sociological angle. As I think that a Neo-liberal world creates different kinds of social articulation and disarticulation processes which are characterised by uncertainty, I would rather refer to a specific point on a three dimensional plane. What’s obvious is that their political socialisation is being shaped under the rule of a movement which efficiently instrumentalises and mobilises religious reflexes.

After World War II, many people left their villages to seek more comfortable economic conditions in big cities, with these flows being supported in both conventional and unconventional ways by the governments to provide the labor force necessary for industrial development in Istanbul. The same population constituted one of the biggest challenges to the republican orthodoxy adopted by the State by firstly challenging, even obsoleting, its linear approach of social development. According to this Durkheimian approach as appreciated by the Kemalists, it is foreseen that as soon as the economic growth, combined with a decent urbanisation, is achieved, a modern society – in which Turkish women are represented in a western fashion – would be formed. However, there were many externalities and the spirit of time, as well as the sociology, was always changing. In France, for example, inspiring sociologues like Alain Touraine and Pierre Bourdieu appeared to well interpret the society. In the case of Turkey, in the decades following the Kemalist era, social sciences had been neglected; in return, no positive approach was adopted to cope with the emergence of this amorphous migrant ‘class’ produced by industrialisation and migration.

Although abstractions may be harmful while exercising social sciences, in order to develop a clear view, it is important to draw general characteristics of the migrant families. The cultural codes of the migrants mostly coming from rural parts of Turkey to the big cities are evidently religious and patriarchal. Mostly, there is a strict division of labor in the family that men work to provide for the family and women are responsible for the children and home. I think the place of women in this family structure is rather interesting in a ‘contradictory’ manner. On the one hand, women are ‘worshipped’ as a mother being totally deprived of her sexuality and she represents the ‘honor’ of the family. On the other hand, she is a subordinated figure facing her husband’s authority. A lack of economic independence and the relations shaped by mechanical solidarity[3] imprison women. In  fact, she is twofold subordinated considering the fact that she just represents her husband’s honor under the guise of family honor. It is also important to question the content of this constructed honor notion. This is strictly related to the female body which “must be protected at any cost”. In this way, man established a domination relationship over women to the extent that there is no challenge to man’s authority. That’s why, as a social phenomenon which takes its roots from a patriarchal view of world, the issue of the türban addresses both male and female dimensions of society in an indivisible way. In the absence of a deconstructive factor, this structure keeps reproducing itself for generations. In this context, the türban emerged as a means used by women to cover themselves in the urban area. It should be underlined that it is not a newly constructed thing that women cover their head. Having a religious-cultural background, Anatolian women also wear a headscarf to cover their heads; however, migrants use a türban as a kind of cloth with specific tying forms which somehow reflects their identity.

Putting aside the sociological and ideological backgrounds, the reason which makes the türban conflict so visible lies in the exclusion of türban-wearing women from public institutions and educational institutions, including universities. It is evident that türban-wearing women are exposed to symbolic violence by the State. Considering the fact that the State is both the biggest employer in Turkey and the only regulator for some sectors, this violence gains an economic aspect as well.  In return, the people are radicalised – in a non-violent way – and politicised around this symbol which consolidates their peripheral power. This exclusion and its self-nourishing politicisation process merged with the core ideological conflict of laic – islamist. Thus, a woman’s body has become a battlefield where ideological clashes are fought.


The solution invented for turban-wearing women who remained outside the education system would be so short-sighted and provisory. In order to let them study, the State preferred to deform an existing structure. With the transformation of “İmam Hatip Lisesi”[4] , opened in 1951, the situation got more complicated. These schools intended for raising imams and preachers transformed into the institutions where türban-wearing women can also continue their studies; what is unusual is that, in the islamic tradition, these professions are carried out by men. Adopting such a policy, the republic practically created a secondary/parallel education institution alongside a socialisation location. Thus, a dual education system reappeared as had been the case in the modernising Ottoman Empire. Since it is impossible to escape sociological realities, the regime was entrapped and adopted the same way as with the Empire and, in my opinion, an evident counter-revolution in the field of education took place.

In return, the harvest was reaped and two hard-to-reconcile generations sharing the same time and space came into existence; this contributed in further deepening differences in the following years. The children of first generation migrants who completed their high school studies in “İmam Hatip Liseleri” demanded to continue their undergraduate studies. However, state bureaucracy, leaning on the spirit of constitutional articles, rejected their demands, claiming that in a laical education system, the students have to dress in accordance with laical values. However, it should be underlined that there is no law specifically referring to the türban in the Turkish legal system but there are secondary regulations applied by “YÖK”[5] and universities. This situation, with some ups and downs associated to turbulent political conditions, persisted until AKP took power in 2002. In fact, AKP has effectively exploited this ongoing crisis to consolidate its voters. However, some radical changes have taken place so far. Within the last 8 years, the obstacles banning the türban in universities were abolished and the türban was authorized in public institutions except military and judicial positions. Recently, the türban does not constitute a major field conflict in society; however, in the absence of such a symbol, the underlying conflicts persist under the form of laic/religious-conservative polarisation which almost splits society in two on the basis of the laic character of the regime.


 To sum up, on the one hand, concerning an issue like physical appearance, I critically engage with the civilising ideal which intrumentalises interdictions. It is almost impossible to challenge reflections like the türban without accessing the core of the subject. If a social structure is needed to be transformed in the eyes of a regime, social investment and rehabilitation phases should accompany this transformation. In relation to the türban issue, the republican experience of Turkey based on an exclusive approach resulted in ghettoisation and the loss of common values. On the other hand, it should be noted that the grand majority of religious conservatives in Turkey appreciate the importance of rights as soon as they are the victims. Besides, currently, there are some other aggravating challenges threatening social reconciliation. A dominant-party system is institutionalising by threatening the fundamental rights of secularists, the supporters of the ruling party are motivated by revanchism, while the economic capital is more and more accessible for religious conservatives. Under these circumstances, the inclusive orientations of the political elite and the reflection of this attitude on reforms will be definitive for the future of Turkey.

[1] Türban: tightly gripping type of head scarf made of thin fabric

[2] Anatolian peninsula, or Anatolian plateau, is the westernmost protrusion of Asia, which makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey

[3] Mechanical solidarity is a notion introduced by French sociologue Émile Durkheim in The Division of Labor in Society (1893). It describes a type of social relation characterising traditional society. Mechanical solidarity results from proximity. People live together in communities. The weight of the social group is very important (family, work). They share very strong common values: the collective consciousness is high and no deviation from the norm is tolerated because challenging the collective consciousness is social cohesion as a whole and can’t be questioned.

[4] In Turkey, an Imam Hatip school (Turkish: İmam Hatip Lisesi, ‘hatip’ coming from Arabic ‘khatib’, meaning ‘the one who delivers the “khutba”’ (Friday sermon) is a secondary education institution. As the name suggests, they were originally founded in lieu of vocational schools to train government-employed imams.

[5] The Council of Higher Education (Turkish: Yükseköğretim Kurulu, YÖK; also translated as Higher Education Board) is responsible for the supervision of universities in Turkey.

To find out more stay tuned!

Berk Can Kozan

He achieved his BA Degree from the Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus and obtained his MA degree from University of Pécs in Hungary. His main research fields concern on nuclear deterrence, international security and foreign policy issues, international relations’ theories, and internal/external affairs of Turkey. Currently, he is a third year PhD student at the National University of Public Service in Hungary.
Back to top button