Erdogan moots putting Turkey headscarf reform to referendum

ANKARA (Reuters): Turkey’s president said his party could put to a referendum constitutional amendments to protect women’s right to wear a headscarf, in a move some Turks see as an attempt to outflank the opposition on a once-deeply divisive issue.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) met the opposition on the issue as parties vie for support ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections set for next June, with polls showing support for Erdogan’s government slipping. Other surveys show that few Turks see the Islamic headscarf as a point of debate anymore, while critics and the opposition say the amendments’ real target is the LGBT+ community.

The headscarf was once a source of deep discord in Muslim but secular Turkey — its once-powerful secular establishment saw it as a symbol of radical Islam and a threat to the secular order. But the question ceased to stir controversy after reforms by the Islamist-rooted AKP during its 20 years in power. However the secularist CHP, a party having long opposed the wearing of headscarves in parliament and public offices, revived the issue last month with a proposal to enshrine the right, in an attempt to attract support from devout Turks.

In response, Erdogan raised the stakes and proposed a constitutional reform on the issue encompassing measures to protect the family from what he called “perverse trends,” appearing to take aim at global same-sex marriage laws. He said a referendum could be called if the bill did not win support from the minimum 360 MPs in the 600-seat parliament needed for constitutional changes. AKP and its nationalist allies have 334 seats.

“We are ready to take other steps including a referendum,” Erdogan told AKP deputies in parliament. The AKP held talks with three opposition parties and the largest one, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said it would not back the amendments. Turkey’s renewed headscarf debate followed civil unrest in Iran over the death of a women who was in detention over the Islamic Republic’s strict restrictions on women’s dress.

The current Turkish proposal is not viewed as an effort to encourage women to wear headscarves. When leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced the CHP’s planned legislation on the headscarf in early October, Erdogan responded by saying the issue had already been resolved. But Erdogan then pushed for constitutional changes including family-related measures, which Ibrahim Kaboglu, a CHP lawmaker and constitutional professor, dismissed as an “opportunistic” bid to advance his own agenda.

A recent Metropoll survey found only 8% of Turks believe headscarves were still an issue of debate. Erdogan said the amendments also aimed to protect the family, saying: “While the unity between woman and man based on legitimacy is scorned; perversion, immorality and crooked relationships are being encouraged intentionally.”

Erdogan and AKP lawmakers have toughened their rhetoric against LGBT+ people in recent years, frequently labeling them “deviants” or “perverts” and raising concerns among members of the community. “We can see that the real goal is to criminalize LGBT+ people and to further strengthen the dominance of their own future governments,” said Anjelik Kelavgil, 30, an NGO professional in Ankara. Feyza Akinerdem, sociology lecturer at Bogazici University, said: “Instead of speaking about LGBT rights and women’s rights at once, this allows for attacks on one of these two under the guise of protecting the other.”