'Never a Religious Necessity' Headscarf Researcher Condemns Turkey's Move to Lift Ban

In a SPIEGEL interview, prominent Turkish archeologist  Muazzez Ilmiye Cig discusses her country's move to lift the headscarf ban on college campuses and why she feels it represents a "step back" for her country.

By in Istanbul

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Anatolia: "What is really at stake is power and political interests!"

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Anatolia: "What is really at stake is power and political interests!"

Hardly any other issue is so divisive in Turkey as the headscarf. For some it is an expression of individual religiousness, while others see it as a declaration of war against the secular republic. The parliament in Ankara, which is dominated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic conservative AKP, voted last Wednesday to lift the ban on wearing the headscarf at universities.

On Saturday, parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the two constitutional amendments. In lifting the ban, Erdogan made good on a campaign promise he had made five years ago. Leading up to the parliament's decision, tens of thousands of secular Turks took to the streets to express their support for keeping the ban. The amendments have been sent to the office of President Abdullah Gül, who is expected to agree to the changes.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Muazzez Ilmiye Çig -- the 93-year-old doyenne of Turkish archeology, and one of Turkey's best-known opponents of the headscarf -- discusses the development and its ramifications for the secular nation.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Çig, what is the significance of the headscarf for you?

Cig: There is none. It's a piece of material.

SPIEGEL: In one of your books, you claimed that the headscarf was worn by temple prostitutes in pre-Islamic days. Some people interpreted this as a direct insult to Muslim women. In 2006, you even appeared in a Turkish court on charges of "inciting hatred."

Cig: I didn't just claim it, I discovered it. The old cuneiform of the Sumerians describes how sexual rituals with young men were a religious requirement -- one of many -- for priestesses. These women wore veils over their faces to identify themselves. This is a historic fact. I'm a scientist. Whether this article of clothing, a sex symbol, is suitable as a moral calling card today is something for others to decide.

SPIEGEL: If you had been convicted you would have faced 18 months in prison. But the court acquitted you of the charges.

Cig: If prison had been my sentence I would have gone to prison. That's where I concur with Socrates: I would rather drink poison than sacrifice my ideals.

SPIEGEL: Which ideals?

Turkish archeologist Muazzez Ilmiye Çig: "The secular state is a great treasure for us."

Turkish archeologist Muazzez Ilmiye Çig: "The secular state is a great treasure for us."

Cig: The Turkish republic, secularism, the legacy that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk left us. I accept that this system makes mistakes, but that's completely normal. It took centuries before the Enlightenment prevailed in Europe. We can look back on only 80 years of enlightenment. Under these circumstances, this sort of trial is a small price to pay.

SPIEGEL: A cultural struggle surrounding the headscarf is raging in your country. The ruling Islamic conservative AKP is trying to remove the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities. The military and other social groups are strongly opposed. How do you feel about this debate?

Cig: The partitioning of society into so-called religious and so-called secular groups is superficial. What is really at stake is power and political interests! Even in Atatürk's day, there were groups that feared that their power would be threatened if Western schools were suddenly established and competed with the old Koran schools. It's a lie that Atatürk was opposed to Islam. But for those who lost their influence as Arabic teachers because Atatürk introduced Latin script and permitted sermons to be delivered in Turkish in the mosques, it was a convenient charge. In truth, however, the Turks were happy that they could finally read the Koran in Turkish. We have a similar situation today: The Kemalists are accused of godlessness, simply because they want to protect the principles of the secular state.

SPIEGEL: But what is so objectionable about devout Turkish women wanting to wear the headscarf in universities?

Cig: It's quite simple. Secularism is not directed against religion, but it does call for a separation between the state and religion. In other words, the young women are welcome to wear the headscarf, but not on government premises. It so happens that the headscarf is a religious symbol. Besides, it is one that incorrectly invokes religion.

SPIEGEL: Can this be proven?

Cig: You won't find anything in the Koran that isn't ambiguous. I could explain to the female students in detail why the headscarf was never a religious necessity and that, if they were to obey all rules in Islam, they would first have to obey many other requirements. Islam is basically a very inconspicuous and individual religion, which can make do quite easily without demonstrative clothing regulations.

SPIEGEL: You wrote a letter to the wife of the prime minister, Emine Erdogan, asking her to remove her headscarf.

Cig: I do not feel that she represents me. The secular state is a great treasure for us. The mosque is open, but it is up to you to decide whether to go there or not. Atatürk understood this better than anyone else. I believe this man was a visionary. He also predicted that society would take steps backward. We are currently in such a phase.

Interview conducted by Daniel Steinvorth.


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