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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Who is Divided — Turkey or the Media?

What the Turkish and international public know about headscarves is as divided as the debate on lifting the ban.


Not long after winning a landslide reelection victory last July, the mildly pro-Islamic Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party went to work to lift the ban on wearing of Muslim headscarf in universities, despite opposition from the secular establishment.

After years of sidestepping one of the most sensitive social issues in Turkey, Erdogan revisited the issue and has moved to lift the ban on young women wearing headscarves at universities.

In February, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution that permits women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities. But the ruling met with widespread dissent among secularists, who see the headscarf as a symbol of Islam. And last month the Constitutional Court of Turkey reinstated the ban on headscarves citing a constitutional obligation to uphold the secularity of the state.

The debate is an ongoing struggle between the government and a militantly secularist establishment used to getting its way.

Either way, the debate is not black and white. For the secular elite, this means a step back into Islamic Turkey, while for others it is a long overdue right to wear what one pleases. For the Turkish media, this creates a tension when trying to serve the public interest. 

” Both the pro-government media and the “liberal” media have been following an editorial line supporting government on issues such as the freedom of wearing a headscarf while down playing other social issues like government corruption or lack of labour rights,” says Ariana Ferentinou, lecturer in the Faculty of Communication at Istanbul Bilgi University.

“The coverage is one sided at the expense of objective and fair news analysis,” she says.

Long simmering issue

The issue has been simmering since the mid-1980s. The rise of political Islam, well entrenched in Turkey’s growing middle class, has lead to more women petitioning to be allowed to wear headscarves in public institutions. Because of the ban, some resort to wearing wigs over their scarves to cover their natural hair and be permitted into university buildings and into classes.

“We will end the suffering of our girls at university gates,” said Erdogan, who has personal stakes in the matter. He sent his own daughters to the U.S. to study.

“The right to a higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears. There is no such problem in Western societies. I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve this problem,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

The clash goes even further between political maneuvers in Turkey and how the international media reports on these matters, influencing what the international audience thinks has happened.

Before the law got to judicial review, the constitutional court in Turkey, the highest court, over-turned it. The secular establishment, which is composed of the judiciary, military and bureaucracy, strongly opposes the removal of headscarves at universities. There’s a lot of effort to prevent this freedom. But in the meantime, international media reporting construed the image that Turkey’s ban had been lifted.

“Most people think this happened because of the irresponsible workings of the foreign media,” says David Judson, Editor-in-Chief at the Turkish Daily News. “It is still illegal.”

‘Derivative feeding frenzy’

Judson blames the mis-information on what he calls a “derivative feeding frenzy.” When one newspaper publishes something, others follow. But for him, “the most difficult part is avoiding and navigating the attention in the media.” Especially, when there is a derivative instinct to go after a story that is entrenched with symbolism.

“Symbolism is a real important tool in journalism,” he says. “Symbols are a form of capital.” 

From Monica Lewinsky wearing the blue beret, to the glove in the O.J. Simpson trial, the story is laced with easy symbolism that both the national and international public can remember and it’s no wonder the press feed off one another.

This process can be described in another way. Judson also calls it the “self-licking ice cream cone.” Pretty soon all the media is chasing the story in some way and they try to break it even when there’s nothing to break.

“The media has a moral, social, political and even constitutional responsibility to not engage itself in censorship, but to put the kinds of highly symbolic, highly emotional, highly sensitive issues in context,” he says.

When Hurriyet published a front page cover announcing the ban was lifted with numerous photographs of girls wearing headscarves, the Turkish Daily News didn’t follow suit. 

“When on the day that the law of Turkey allows students to freely go into universities wearing a headscarf, then I think that is a banner story.”

Until then, Judson is going to revert to his journalism teachings: “Don’t use up your 72-point font in the primary election.” 

When he feels the font will be worth the story, he will print it, otherwise, he is not here to mislead his readers with a font that is not worth the story, he says.

‘What’s so special?’

But Fatma Dişli doesn’t understand why some newspapers in the Turkish media don’t like headscarf-wearing women. She says she sees headlines that state: “Headscarf wearing girls seen while attending a university.”

“What is so special about this?” she asks. For her the problem doesn’t lie in the size of the headline, but of the way the media portrays women. “They approach headscarf-wearing women like they are aliens, illiterate, uneducated,” she says. “They have prejudice, unfortunately.”

Fatma Dişli is a reporter and a columnist with Today’s Zaman. She wears a headscarf. She feels she is fortunate that her employer allows her the freedom to choose. Most of her friends who wear a headscarf are not so lucky. They are unable to find jobs or they find their potential employer asking them to take it off if they want the job.

As a journalist who wears a headscarf, at times it is hard to tackle sensitive issues in her articles because of the number of opinions in Turkey. 

“There is the opinion that women wearing headscarves are backwards and they are ignorant and they don’t wear headscarves because of freedom, but from the pressure from their family,” says Dişli.

Personal choice

For Dişli it is about personal choice and not pressure. And as a journalist, she needs to keep in mind concerns of all parties involved.

“As a person and a journalist, I can’t understand their concern,” she says. But that doesn’t reflect in her writing.

She needs to follow strict journalism ethics when writing her column or the news. 

“We have to be objective.” 

For her, this doesn’t mean that the reader needs to take sides with the person who writes. As someone who wears a headscarf, she doesn’t feel any obligation to other women wearing headscarves in her writing.

“It has nothing to do with my writing,” she says. “At the newspaper, we always take the side of democracy and equality.”

If Dişli feels that there is a need to take a stance on the ban, then she will do it, but on the other hand, she feels there is no reason for her to take a stance on the issue because individual liberties are at stake in this situation. And the right to wear a headscarf is an individual liberty.

The problem with the news media in Turkey is they are not trusted. The trust is rooted in the misrepresentation of information, the manipulation of facts and in the fact that most journalists don’t comply with the standards of journalism ethics.

Between extremes

Ferentinou notes there are two media extremes. Between them lies the rest of the Turkish media that tries to follow the basic notions of journalism ethics such as objectivity, fair representation and truthfulness. It happens that these notions are often compromised.

“In spite of their proclamations for protecting privacy or fair representation of women and children, the Turkish media (especially the press) break many of these ethical rules for the sake of increasing their sales.”

To tackle the problem of mistrust, first a journalist needs to understand the public and secondly think of what is in the public interest.

In regards to the headscarf issue, Dişli says, “What [the public] needs to know is only the facts. Not my information and not my opinion. Only the facts.”

But she does say there are journalists that will spin their stories and there are people in Turkey who will believe everything that is written, while she hopes there are more people who will question the sources.

“I think journalists should understand the public, what are their problems, what they like, what they don’t like. They shouldn’t just sit back in their chairs and write problems.”

This could be one solution. And the one solution that Dişli hopes to see is compliance with journalism ethics set by Turkey.

The other solution is to include as many views as possible as long as they are not incriminating. Unfortunately, the monopolization of the Turkish media, where the Dogan group owns a large chunk of the media, poses a challenge to the independence and objectivity of journalistic work in Turkey.

Media in this case is used as a tool to acquire state contacts. This is where the media breaks many ethical issues for profit or an increase in sales.

Another serious problem that prevents the ethical practice of journalism and promotes self-censorship is the low unionization of media professionals.

“Most journalist work outside Law 212, which regulates their rights and they do not have permanent employment contracts,” says Ferentinou. This leaves journalists vulnerable.

The result is that there hasn’t been a change in the law on headscarves and legal confusion surrounding a deeply divisive issue in a country struggling toward democracy has remained.

“I think there is a long way before Turkish media can reach global standards of ethics,” says Dişli

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