chapter  9
Democracy, civil society and women’s public personae: Turkish women and Muslim headscarves
Pages 16

In this public message for International Women’s Day on 7 March 2004, the Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, after acknowledging the important role played by women in modern Turkey in all walks of society, elaborates the official position of the establishment on headscarves and warns against its dangers. This stated view encapsulates the dilemmas experienced in Turkey in relation to the issue of Muslim headscarves within a democratic process. How do we decide who has a legitimate claim among the many claimants within the system on this issue? Does every claim have legitimacy in the system? Deciding between claims for recognition and between various demands for resources is one of the central questions implicit in the foundations of democratic regimes. These are questions related to an ideological, nationalistic, understanding of Turkish identity which has recently become much more self-aware about the implications of Islamic culture in Turkey in relation to the European Union. While Turkey has committed itself to the European social value system through its secular outlook, and is under pressure from the EU to further democratise its system and build a more open society, this social ideology has been questioned on the basis of its democratic limits on rights and entitlements. Together with other ethnic issues, Islam has become a part of the discussion about common understanding of the public face of secular Turkishness. However, EU pressure and reaction to the debate in Turkey has had interesting implications, as I will discuss. Of course these implications are not limited to Turkey. In recent debates over Muslim women’s headscarves they have become more clearly pronounced

in several European countries, such as Belgium, Britain, France and Germany. They demand urgent responses from political authorities as well as from the general public within which they are posed. The present chapter examines demands from Muslim women and political responses to them, and problematises the general perception of civil society as a privileged space for social negotiation within discussions of democracy. It questions the general view that civil society is a space through which marginal voices can be represented and gradually recognised. In this view, political distance between state and society is seen as sufficient for political independence while any commonality in socio-political values between the two is ignored. I analyse a proposal from Nancy Fraser in relation to state, civil society and democracy and relate these ideas to the Turkish context. Fraser’s proposal then allows me to investigate the challenge presented to the democratic system by Muslim women, particularly within what is considered to be civil society. Analysis of the Turkish case leads us to question the role of civil society in this process, since a public confrontation is clearly taking place, not only with the state authorities, but also with a civil society in which women describe themselves as modern Turkish women. The implications of the latter are important since they point to an underlying context which combines the aspiration underpinning the state’s legitimacy and the defence of social identity within civil society. The headscarves discussion raises some questions for Fraser’s proposals and more widely in relation to women’s relationships among women and women’s well-being in Turkey. The discussion also highlights the tension between the democratic pressures put on Turkey by the EU to have a more open civil society and what can actually be achieved. By questioning the limits of these assumptions about civil society, I argue that if people do not participate publicly on the basis of consensus over values in the form of a socio-cultural reflex, the assumed role of civil society becomes merely a rhetorical device (Seckinelgin, 2004). The often assumed distinction between state and civil society needs to be closely examined by looking at intra-civil society contestation within certain power relations. First, I outline the Fraser proposal and then look at the historical process, which has established both the grounds for democratic process and the identity of women in Turkey. Then I look at the way civil society functions in response to the Muslim women’s demands. Lastly I discuss the implications of this context for the present debate in terms of democratic participation in the public debate. Before moving onto the next section I would like to make certain caveats. Following Iris Marion Young (1990: 43-9), I suggest that the headscarf forms a useful analytical starting point which allows unpacking of complex questions of power relations. This avoids reducing, as is commonly done in political debate, women’s demands and claims in general to a particular case of Islamism by attributing a natural meaning to the fact of wearing a headscarf. My focus in this study is the political debate involving citizens within civil society underpinned by the socio-cultural values framed in a certain nationalistic perspective. For that reason I do not discuss various perspectives on headscarves in terms of

their standing in Islamic discourse and theology, or various interpretations of the use of headscarves as a subversive cultural tool in engaging with the incursions of modernity in various societies (Mule and Barthel, 1992; Göle, 1996; Hashim, 1999; Saktanber, 2002; Navaro-Yashin, 2002; White, 2002).