Headscarf issue flares after woman's death in Turkey

By Catherine Collins

Special to the Tribune

August 20, 2002


ISTANBUL -- Medina Bircan already was dying from

cancer when she was admitted to Istanbul University's

Capa Hospital last month. Six days later, doctors told

her son there was nothing more that they could do for

his 71-year-old mother and advised him to take her


First, however, he needed to make arrangements for her

to continue to receive dialysis as an outpatient. That

is when the trouble began.

Because Bircan wore a headscarf--an important symbol

of her Muslim faith--on her national health

identification card, a document required for treatment

at public hospitals, the hospital refused to approve

the paperwork for her outpatient treatment. Turkey's

staunchly secular government bans headscarves in

public buildings such as parliament and universities.

She died a week later in the hospital as her son tried

to alter her ID photo by digitally removing the scarf.

Almost immediately, pro-Islamic circles seized on the

case and turned Bircan into a symbol of oppression of

people who are outwardly religious. Women cannot

attend universities wearing headscarves, and a member

of the parliament was stripped of her office for

wearing a scarf into the assembly.

In Bircan's case, the Islamists argue, the headscarf

ban cost a woman her life.

As with most collisions between religion and

government in Turkey, the truth is complicated and

subject to distortion. Officials say Bircan was not

denied proper care. "We never stopped medical

treatment," said Dr. Deniz Sargin, vice dean of

Istanbul Medical School.

The family says she was denied the outpatient care

that would have allowed her to die at home with her


The long, complex dispute over the politics of scarves

in Turkey could be a flash point as the country heads

toward parliamentary elections. With half the voters

undecided--many in the conservative rural

areas--politicians of all stripes are trying to craft

appeals that may inflame the conflict.

Motivations disputed

Just where Bircan's death fits in depends on who is

talking about it.

In order to leave the hospital and be treated at home,

Bircan needed written approval from the hospital.

Family members say hospital officials would not sign

the documents because she wore a headscarf in her

official photograph.

Sargin said the hospital requires that women patients

present ID photos without scarves in order to fight

fraud, because identities could be obscured. "This is

not a human-rights issue," she said.

But Ahmet Mercan, director of Mazlum-Der, a

human-rights organization, begs to differ. To him, the

hospital's headscarf ban violates human rights.

"This is a private application [of law] by the

university," Mercan said. "You cannot apply rules as

you please in a state of law."

This latest twist in the headscarf dispute occurred

after the government ordered all national public

health cards renewed. Most public institutions applied

the law only to students and staff, but Istanbul

University expanded the dress code regulations to

relatives of staff members and to patients, including

Medina Bircan.

Although doctors are emphatic in saying they have

continued to provide services to all patients, delays

in processing paperwork may prevent patients from

receiving prescribed care.

Typically, the hospital's waiting room is full of

women wearing headscarves. During a recent visit, many

expressed concern about their access to care under the


"I would rather die than remove my headscarf," said

Yeter Yavuz, 48. "This is my tradition. They should

not be able to force me to forsake my traditions."

Many people have found a way to work around the

regulations. A dozen photo shops near the hospital

digitally alter women's official identification

documents. Bircan's son Mustafa tried to do just that,

but his mother died before the new card was finished.

Strange bedfellows

The headscarf issue has created curious allies of

traditional pro-Islamic Turks and liberal

Western-leaning ones because it touches on freedom of

expression and on religious tolerance.

The political party that is leading in opinion polls,

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented Justice and

Development Party, has a built-in appeal to

conservative voters. Erdogan's daughter chose to

attend Indiana University, where she did not have to

relinquish her scarf.

At the other end of the political spectrum is a former

foreign minister, Ismail Cem, who recently resigned

from the ruling three-party coalition government to

found a party called New Turkey. Cem, whose daughter

runs an Internet company, surprised Turks recently

with a promise to protect the country's secular system

and religious freedoms.

"We have a formula," Cem said. "We say a secularism

which is respectful of religious sensitivities."

Rights advocates are wary.

"We don't want to be an Algeria or an Iran, a country

where women are forced to wear head coverings," said

activist Sanar Yurdatapan. "But what is the difference

between forcing someone to wear something or requiring

them to take it off? The human rights are the same."

Copyright  2002, Chicago Tribune


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