Tayyip Erdogan proposes a referendum on right to wear headscarf

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested the constitutional change to guarantee the right to wear a headscarf in the civil service, schools, and universities should be decided through a referendum.

“If you have the courage, come on, let’s put this to a referendum,” he said in a televised address.

“Let the nation make the decision,” Erdogan added, speaking to the leader of the main opposition party Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who had initially proposed a law to guarantee the right to wear the headscarf in a bid to resolve what he said was “deep polarization”.

In response, Kilicdaroglu on Saturday night rejected the idea of a referendum, accusing Erdogan of “imitating” Hungarian nationalist leader Victor Orban, who has become the icon of the hard right.

“Do you intend to imitate Orban, Erdogan? Where do you get the referendum from?” he tweeted.

The debate over the headscarf in Turkey has recently heated up ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Turkey has long been a country where wearing a headscarf was banned in public institutions due to secularism being enshrined in its constitution.

But restrictions on the veil were lifted in 2013 by Erdogan’s conservative government.

The Turkish president often portrays himself as the protector of Muslims — who make up the country’s majority — against secular “elites,” suggesting that without him, “gains” such as the lifting of headscarf restrictions will be jeopardized.

Although the headscarf provoked heated debate, no political movement is now proposing a ban on it in Turkey.

In July 2008, Constitutional Court knocked down an attempt by Erdogan’s ruling AK party to lift the headscarf ban at universities on the grounds that it was anti-secular.

Erdogan’s spouse, Emine Erdogan, is known for wearing a headscarf while accompanying her husband on the campaign trail and during official functions.

Turkey’s first lady has openly supported conservative women’s voices, honoring the like of activist Sule Yuksel Senler, who she said was “a leading figure of the headscarf cause (dedicating) her life to raise awareness of the youth” after Senler’s death in 2019.

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