In Turkey there is now a great deal of controversy about proposed revisions to the constitution that would include lifting the ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities. Many commentators have taken this to be an ominous sign of the intention of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, who represent the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to undermine Turkey’s secular republic in the interests of establishing an Islamist state. In Turkey, as elsewhere in Europe, the headscarf has become a symbol not only of political Islam, but of the oppression of women. When, in 2004, France outlawed the wearing of headscarves in public schools, for example, it was in the name of secularism and gender equality. The two were taken to be synonymous.

History, both in France and Turkey, contradicts the claim that secularism guarantees equal rights for women and men. The French secular state long denied women the right to vote and its civil code enforced male prerogatives over women in families until well into the twentieth century. The Turkish republic (a one-party state until after WWII) was inspired by the French republic (although it gave women the vote in 1934, ten years before France) and it modeled its penal code on Italy’s. Until that code was revised in 2001 (with the support of the AKP), women were defined as men’s property and rape was considered a violation of a male property-holder’s right. Ideas about family honor resting on the control of women’s sexuality are not unique to Islam, nor are they foreign to secularism.

The sharp opposition between the secular and the religious is a distortion of historical reality. Most of the secular states of Western Europe found ways to accommodate their religious majorities rather than banishing them; it is probably more accurate to speak of forms of Christian secularism than of the erasure of the public presence of religion. School holidays in secular France are Catholic holidays and the state supports the upkeep of churches as part of the national patrimony. In Germany, there is religious instruction in public schools. In these countries, Muslims have rightly wondered whether restrictions on their religious expression were a form of discrimination against a minority presence rather than a defense of the secularism of the state.

Although Muslims are a majority in Turkey, the question of discrimination has also been raised there. This time, it is new migrants to cities as well as residents of the countryside who are questioning the entrenched power of urban elites. The emergence of a multi-party system in Turkey is associated with breaking the hold of these elites, whose support for military authority in defense of secularism made them seem suspicious of, if not hostile to democracy. The multi-party system brought the question of religion—its representation and its practice—into play. The need to figure out an accommodation between a majority religion and democratic practice is not unprecedented in the history of European nation-states.

Allowing headscarves in universities may be one way of accomplishing this negotiation. It is especially interesting that the Prime Minister has explained the need to lift the ban as a way of guaranteeing all girls the “right to higher education,” a right that assumes not only equality with men, but among women of different classes and social backgrounds. For observant Muslim women—the majority, some 60% in Turkey—wearing the headscarf means many things, but one of its effects is to enable mobility and independence in the public arena; this means access to the education and jobs traditionally enjoyed by the minority of women associated with established secular urban elites.

It is important to note, too, that feminist groups in Turkey are divided on the question of the headscarf. They realize how complicated an issue it is in terms of achieving not only gender, but social and economic equality. They are not divided about other proposed changes to the constitution, however. These involve dropping the commitment of the government to insure equality for all (a hard won gain for women’s groups) and introducing language referring to women as a “vulnerable group.” These changes would bring back the laws that prevailed under the secular republic until the end of the 20th century; laws that subordinated women to men and confined them to the domestic sphere.

In Turkey there seem to be two separate issues at stake in the constitutional reforms. One is the restoration of male privilege, which would come in the form of revisions to the civil code. The other is the recognition of women’s rights, which would include the right of individual religious expression. Ironically, since the right to wear the headscarf has been defined as a woman’s individual political and social right, it could make the full restoration of male privilege difficult to justify, if not impossible to implement.