The wearing of the Islamic headscarf has returned to the heart of Turkey’s political debate

Turkey’s government and opposition both promised legal steps on Wednesday to enshrine women’s right to wear Islamic headscarves, returning to the heart of political debate ahead of next year’s elections an issue that once caused deep divisions.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year, and opinion polls suggest that the outcome is still up for grabs. The proposal came as the ruling AK Party and the opposition both put forth policy proposals.

Before the AK Party’s (Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning party) two decades in power, which pushed through reforms ending the fierce discord over the headscarf issue in secular Muslim Turkey, the issue was no longer an issue.

Opposition chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu resuscitated the subject this week, exposing the planned legislation as CHP attempts to connect with pious Turks, who have traditionally been reluctant to back the party.

In a speech to AKP deputies in parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan extensively criticized the CHP for its past opposition to expanding headscarf freedoms.

President Erdogan said that the CHP’s call for a new constitution to address the issue of the presidential system was misplaced, as the issue had already been addressed.

He did not expand on the subject, but it appeared that he was suggesting that the right of women to wear the headscarf should be enshrined in the constitution.

Recent surveys showing Kilicdaroglu, the opposition presidential candidate, ahead of Erdogan motivated the government to take these measures. However, the Metropoll survey, which is renowned for its accuracy, showed that the ruling coalition is still five points ahead of the main opposition alliance.

On Wednesday, Kilicdaroglu gave a cautious welcome to Erdogan’s idea about rights and liberties, saying, ‘If there is no deceitful agenda behind it, of course, we would be pleased to offer any kind of assistance.’

In 2008, the Turkish parliament abolished a ban on females wearing the headscarf at university, a development that Erdogan and CHP parliamentarians including Kilicdaroglu had unsuccessfully attempted to safeguard in the constitutional court.

Army generals, judges, and university rectors, who were at the time the secular establishment, viewed the headscarf as a symbol of radical Islam and a threat to the secular order.

In 2013, Turkey lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves in state institutions as part of reforms the government said would strengthen democracy.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer