On August 5th, a Turkish criminal court issued its ruling in one of the most significant cases in Turkish history, with numerous prison sentences ranging from a few years to life, including a life sentence for the ex-Chief of Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces. There is much developing discourse around the ruling, and I will post a detailed discussion about it shortly. In the meantime, a shameful news story from Massachusetts reminds us that certain vulnerabilities cross boundaries.
This time the vulnerability in question is that of pious Muslim women who cover their hair because of religious conviction. State prohibition of hijab in certain public spaces has been an issue in Turkey, especially since the 1980’s, as I have discussed in a previous paper. Despite its rhetoric of upholding Islam, the current AKP government has not made any meaningful official progress on eliminating this legal prohibition in the last decade. However, during my discussions with professors and university students in Istanbul, many told me that despite the lack of change in official policies and the laws, students in many universities now attend classes without being forced to remove their hijab at the university entrance. Turkey is not unique in prohibiting or limiting hijab- from Egypt and Albania to various Western European countries, hijab prohibitions exist in varying forms and degrees. Consider this news story from Massachusetts, where during the bar exam, a proctor gave a note to bar examinee Iman Abdulrazzak asking her to remove her “headwear” and place it under her chair. Ms. Abdulrazzak called the Board of Bar Examiners during the lunch break to clarify the situation, since she had already received prior approval to wear her hijab during the exam. With the confirmation of the prior approval, the issue was resolved and Ms. Abdulrazzak completed the exam without having to remove her hijab, but because she chose not to remain quiet, her story has been reported in social media and other news outlets.
The official response from the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bar Examiners Marilyn Wellington was that the incident was a result of an “unfortunate miscommunication” (quoted here). Massachusetts Bar Examiners require that no headwear be worn during the examination, but allow for exceptions for medical and religious reasons with prior approval. Ms. Abdulrazzak had received approval on Monday of the exam week. She was asked to remove her hijab on Thursday. Moreover, she was asked to remove her hijab mid-exam, rather than when she initially entered the exam hall. If the proctor was genuinely mistaken about the lack of prior approval, why wait until after the exam had started?
Unforeseen events such as an earthquake might happen during the bar exam, but those events impact all bar takers. Ms. Abdulrazzak was singled out specifically because of her religious practice, and in a rather questionable manner in the middle of the exam. One can only imagine the disruption to her concentration and mental state, and how such disruption may have impacted her performance on the exam. She is filing a complaint with the Board of Bar Examiners about the incident. Even though Ms. Abdulrazzak has stated that she does not think her incident was a result of racial or religious bias, numerous other incidents (like this one) around the United States trigger suspicion about the motives of the proctor.