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Turkish constitutional committee approves amendment on headscarf

Once ruling AK Party’s proposal for constitutional changes on right to wear the headscarf lands in Parliament, it could put to rest what was once a deep source of discord in Türkiye for good

Parliament’s constitutional committee on Tuesday ratified the amendment that guarantees the constitutional right to wear the headscarf and redefines marriage in more concrete terms, paving the way for the amendment to land in Parliament.

The amendment, brought to Parliament by some 366 deputies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) last month, considers adding provisions to Articles 24 and 41 of the Constitution.

It stipulates that the exercise of fundamental rights, freedom and the utilization of property and services offered by public and private institutions cannot be contingent on whether a woman wears the headscarf or not.

The amendment declares that no woman, under any circumstances, can be deprived of exercising her basic rights and freedoms, such as education, work, the right to elect and be elected, political activities, civil service or utilizing property and services offered by public and private institutions owing to wearing the headscarf for religious reasons or as part of the attire. She cannot be condemned, accused, or subjected to any form of discrimination for it.

When it comes to uniforms necessitated by service either received or given, the state will be able to take necessary measures on the condition of never preventing a woman from wearing the headscarf and attire for religious reasons.

The headscarf, once a source of deep discord in Türkiye when its once-powerful secular establishment saw it as a threat to the temporal order, ceased to stir controversy after reforms by the AK Party during its 20-year rule.

However, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), a party that has long opposed headscarves in parliament and public offices, revived the issue last October with a proposal to enshrine the right with legislation, in an attempt to attract support from conservative voters.

Instead of a bill, the AK Party sought to make constitutional amendments to guarantee the right “once and for all.” Raising the stakes, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the amendment would also encompass measures to protect families.

Following its approval at the constitutional commission, the amendment proposal is now headed to the general assembly of the 600-seat Parliament, which will open it up for discussion in all its aspects, including rejection and alteration of certain items.

If three-fifths of Parliament, meaning at least 360 lawmakers, knocks it down, the amendment will be rejected.

However, in the case of more than 360 yet fewer than 400 votes in its favor, the amendment will pass and be forwarded to the president who either holds a referendum or sends it back to the lawmakers for more assessments.

If the amendment secures more than 400 “yes” votes, it passes automatically and the president either opens it up for public opinion or puts it into effect directly.

If the issue goes to referendum, Türkiye could be casting its vote on the same day as the general elections this spring.

Head-covered Turkish women have long struggled under laws that prevented them from wearing headscarves at schools as students and in public institutions as professionals despite the prevalence of such women in the country. The CHP had fueled anti-headscarf sentiment among the masses and supported laws banning it.

The headscarf ban was first implemented widely in the 1980s but became stricter after 1997 when the military forced the conservative government to resign in an incident later dubbed as the Feb. 28 “postmodern coup.”

Parliament lifted the headscarf ban at universities in 2008 in a landmark move championed by Erdoğan and which the CHP lawmakers, including CHP Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, had sought unsuccessfully to block in the constitutional court.

In 2013, Türkiye lifted the headscarf ban in state institutions under reforms that the government said were designed to bolster democracy.

Conjugal unions

The amendment also alters the first title line of Article 41 of the Constitution from “The protection of family and children’s rights” to “The protection of family, conjugal union and children’s rights.”

The article, which regulates that the family is the foundation of a society, now comes with the condition of conjugal union and the amendment redefines the union as “it can only be founded with the marriage of a man and a woman.”

Opposition dismissed

During discussions on the proposal, the CHP and its Nation Alliance partner Good Party (IP) were turned down for their joint proposal to remove the “for religious reasons” phrase from the amendment’s first item on the headscarf citing their aim for “freedom of faith, as an inseparable part of personal rights and freedoms, to include all social sections.”

Claiming that the parties “want the amendment to be handled and passed through a broad social consensus,” the IP Deputy Chair Erhan Usta argued the law should not hinge the right to don headscarves on religious faith alone.

He also said the law on conjugal unions had “no breaches” about its definition and the Constitution could not be altered “just to make a point.”

The CHP and the IP expressed they would support the article only if their proposal was accepted, with Usta noting that “in such a way, we want to ensure women don’t face any pressure or imposition through the headscarf.”

The CHP deputy from Aydın province, Bülent Tezcan, too echoed Usta by saying: “We don’t want a woman’s attire, whether she covers her hair or not, to be a subject of politics and we also know the issue is settled in practice.”

“Unfortunately, the administration is turning this issue into election material and it should not be. It should be removed from the political sphere,” Tezcan argued.

AK Party’s Balıkesir representative Belgin Uygur countered by stating that it was the CHP who initially made the issue “political” to “steal votes” in the upcoming elections. “If you are sincere, we want you to support this amendment. It’s your historic responsibility,” said Uygur.

When lawmakers dismissed their joint proposal, the CHP and IP deputies stormed out of the room.

In a later vote, AK Party and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputies approved the amendment’s first item constituting changes to the headscarf while another AK Party deputy chair declared the item contained “everything the CHP and IP have submitted in their proposal.”

“Their leaving the room was a show,” AK Party’s Emin Akbaşoğlu said. “It’s an ambivalent, insincere attitude that actually constitutes political abuse.”

‘Wasted chance’

Later talking to reporters, Usta said the AK Party and the MHP had “wasted” the chance to have the proposal pass at the general assembly with a minimum of 510 votes in its favor.

“If the amendment is not changed in line with our motion, we will not be voting ‘yes’ for it at the general assembly,” Usta declared.

Arguing that constitutional and legislative changes “improperly” made would lead to “bigger problems” in the future, Usta said the issue needed a “more comprehensive” approach.

“The AK Party’s proposal envisages that women will not be deprived of certain services like education, work due to wearing the headscarf for religious reasons or as part of their attire. We propose that no one should be deprived of certain public rights for their attire, including wearing or not wearing the headscarf,” Usta explained.

“They’re currently campaigning that the Good Party is stuck on a matter of religious faith, that we’re actually bothered by the phrase ‘religious’ but this is incorrect,” he stressed.

When asked whether the party would reject the amendment once it lands in Parliament’s general assembly, Usta revealed they would discuss their stance with their councils but if their motion is still unaccepted, the party will withhold its affirmative vote.

Also later in the day, the CHP’s Tezcan once again mirrored Usta in refusing to ratify the amendment proposal once it enters the general assembly’s agenda.

“We left the commission meeting after seeing the People’s Alliance’s insincerity and determination to twist this issue as a matter of political abuse,” Tezcan claimed, noting that CHP Chair Kılıçdaroğlu is “actively supporting” a solution for the headscarf issue.

Tezcan claimed Erdoğan was intending to “abuse the headscarf issue in order to persuade his previous voter mass whose love he has lost.”

“The AK Party and the MHP had a historic chance to prevent this abuse and provide constitutional security for this issue with great consensus but they wasted it for their political greed,” he said.

“The point here is not an argument of ‘faith’; it’s of ‘right.’ As the proposal stands, we will not support it at the general assembly,” Tezcan concluded.

‘Most important element’

The president himself previously hailed the amendment as a “guarantee” of women’s freedom to choose how they dress and further strengthen the family institution against “attacks of perverse trends.”

“This historic amendment will reveal who is on the side of democracy and freedom and who is on the side of fascism and restrictions,” Erdoğan said last month.

His AK Party has historically stressed that the headscarf issue is “The most important element” for the party’s presence and their general approach to it could “never be political.”

Presidential race

The amendment’s approval and the lawmakers’ debates around it further highlight the tug-of-war between the AK Party and the opposition as Türkiye inches closer to the presidential and parliamentary election, which Erdoğan has recently all but confirmed would take place on May 14.

While Erdoğan stands firm as the presidential candidate of the People’s Alliance, under which his AK Party and MHP are allied, the six-party opposition coalition Nation Alliance, helmed by the CHP and the IP, are yet to field a candidate to challenge Erdoğan.

A CHP official only recently revealed the bloc would name its candidate come February.

The 2023 elections will likely be the first time with two rounds, as it will be the first since the country switched to a presidential system of governance.

Source : Daily Sabah