Controversy over Mini Cooper, Religion, and Headscarves Highlights Need to End Discrimination Against Women in Turkey

The New York Times wrote this week about the controversy that arose when Merve Sena Kilic, a Turkish automobile enthusiast, wore a headscarf while she drove a Mini in her television show “A Passion for Cars.” Following the episode, the company in charge of Mini in Turkey canceled a sponsorship deal with Kilic, explaining that her headscarf was “an image problem” for them. A social media-led outcry resulted in consumer denouncements of the company, Borusan Holding, and led to the resignation of the executive responsible for the decision.

The controversy encapsulates the meeting of several trends in Turkish society and politics: a rising middle class with increasingly self-conscious consumer power, a more vocal constituency of headscarf-wearing women determined to contest their banishment from the public sphere, and a political environment under the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has promoted accommodation of the headscarf.

The controversy raises (again) the question of whether Turkish society is heading inexorably towards a point where the scarf is a more normalized and less polarizing part of public life. On the first score, I would say yes. The Kilic case is not really about laws – it’s about corporate branding and public pressure. The company misjudged the social and political proclivities of its market and realized its mistake through consumer empowerment. The great outcry that arose over Kilic’s treatment suggests that the attire and its place in public life have become more normalized.

But in the short run, such normalization is likely to make the issue more polarizing, not less. Many argue that both laws and norms against headscarves provide space for women to reject pressure to wear the headscarf. Related is the argument that in a society that is still very conservative and patriarchal, the idea of women “choosing” the headscarf is a canard. The state’s promotion of modernity, empowerment, and a secular public culture is more important than violations of individual women’s freedoms. Those who hold this view and believe in policing against normalization of headscarves will react defensively and see stories like Kilic’s as evidence that Turkish society is moving backwards.

But the Turkish approach to date – laws that discriminate against women who wear headscarves in education, employment, and other public spaces – has been counterproductive and unfair. It is ridiculous that whether a woman “chooses” to wear a headscarf or not should have any relevance to her ability to attend school, get a job, or appear in an advertisement. More than anything else, stringent legal and social opposition to headscarves in public serves mainly to make the headscarf a polarizing issue with symbolic significance, thus entrenching those who promote its acceptance by putting them on the defensive.

My sense is that anything that pushes for more free space for women to do or be what they want is good, and that access to public spaces – where women can have their say and leave their mark on public discourse – is more important that what one wears in that space. Focusing attention on headscarves or the lack thereof only reinforces the use of women’s bodies as a site of political struggle.

The Times article reported that one advocacy group is pushing for constitutional amendments guaranteeing the right to education and the right to work specifically in response to discrimination brought on by anti-headscarf laws. Pushing the Turkish political system towards expanded guarantees of freedom can only contribute to building a more stable democratic culture, one that if robust enough can protect freedoms for all Turks, headscarved or not.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Carolyn Barnett

Carolyn Barnett is studying for an MA in Islamic Studies and MSc in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2009 and studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo, Egypt in 2009-2010. Her interests are in Middle East politics, Islam, gender, and the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings.

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