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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 08:26 GMT
Scarf conundrum grips Turkey
By Tabitha Morgan
BBC, Istanbul

As France pushed ahead with its planned school headscarf ban, in Turkey the issue has been the subject of impassioned debate for more than 20 years.

Last year's Eurovision winner Sertab Erener
Modern and secular: Presented as Turkey's face to the world
Turkey is often held up as a model of Islamic democracy.

The separation of public secular identity from private religious practice is fiercely defended by the country's powerful military.

It's a separation which many here in Turkey are keen to show the world. They want to present a country which is secular, modern and Western.

It was an image captured perfectly in last year's Turkish winning entry in the Eurovision song contest. Sparsely-clad Sertab Erener's song "Every Way That I Can" fused Eastern rhythms and hip-hop and became the country's first-ever winner.

Even Prime Minister Erdogan suffers - his daughters wear the headscarf. But he has the money to send them to the US to be educated, so they can keep wearing the scarf
Gulden Sonmez
Human rights activist
But that image does not reflect the whole of Turkey.

In fact, it is estimated that as many as 65% of Turkish women cover their heads with a scarf.

But women wearing headscarves are not allowed to enter state-controlled areas such as schools, universities, or government offices.

Since 1997, when the ban came to be more strictly enforced, growing numbers of these women have been travelling abroad to pursue a university education.

After 24-year-old Semra Batur was excluded from her Turkish university, she and many of her fellow students continued their studies in Azerbaijan.

"Of course it was difficult but we had to do it," she says.

"I did what I had to do, because I wanted to continue my education.

"We have the right to an education."

Special responsibility

Mazlumder is an Islamic organisation that helps women like Semra.

They say that since the headscarf ban was enforced, more than 10,000 women in Istanbul alone have been excluded from universities.

These women and their families expressed their frustration in general elections in 2002, when they voted Turkey's AK Party, which has its roots in Islamist politics, into power.

Now they say their government is not doing enough to help them.

Recep Tayip Erdogan
PM Erdogan has disappointed many supporters with headscarf stand
"This government, because of its nature, has more responsibility to solve the problem," says Mazlumder official Gulden Sonmez.

"Even Prime Minister Erdogan suffers - his daughters wear the headscarf.

"But he has the money to send them to the United States to be educated, so they can keep wearing the scarf.

"People are hugely frustrated."

The election of a government with roots in political Islam has made the issue more complex.

The government declined to speak on the subject, but an AK Party spokeswoman said it considered the headscarf problem to be one of human rights - if Turkey's overall human rights record improved, the issue would be resolved.

Confrontation risk

Privately members of the AK Party may wish to remove the headscarf ban.

The wives of cabinet ministers have themselves been criticised for covering their heads at official state functions.

It is a sign of solidarity with the Islamist groups... But also maybe it's a type of protest. They are protesting against the modernisation programme
Nilufer Narli
Political scientist
But the AK Party is also anxious to avoid alienating the powerful Turkish military - and with some cause, since the last Islamist government was quietly deposed by the army in 1998.

And many staunch secularists like Cuneyt Akalin of Istanbul's Marmara University also remain suspicious of the government's Islamic roots.

They support the recent French ruling and believe the headscarf ban in Turkey must continue.

"In a public space, people should act according to the rules," Mr Akalin says.

"I teach at a public university. In a public space I have some obligations, and so do the students.

"I totally defend it there is no other way of it."

Mr Akalin also thinks the Europeans do not have a clear view of the situation in Turkey.

"We have been fighting for this for 200 years," he says.

"Turkey was the pioneer of this struggle."


Many young Islamist women attempt to reconcile their personal religious beliefs with their desire for an education by removing the headscarf outside the university gates and wearing a wig instead.

But is this purely a question of individual conscience?

Political scientist Nilufer Narli of Kadir Has University believes the headscarf wearers are making a very public political statement.

Turkish women break their Ramadan fasts
An estimated 65% of women traditionally wear the headscarf
"In the modern urban context, it is more a political symbol," she says.

"It is a sign of solidarity with the Islamist groups."

Ms Narli thinks if these young women can prove they are part of an Islamist network, their access to jobs and future career are guaranteed in one way or another.

"But also maybe it's a type of protest," she adds.

"They are protesting against the modernisation programme in Turkey, in the same way that they were protesting in France against what they saw as a failed integration programme."

Despite internal tensions, Turkey's cherished secularism is not likely to change, at least while the military continues to support it.

As long as this is the case, the law will discriminate against those women who believe, for whatever reason, they have no choice but to cover their heads.

It will also have the potential to radicalise Islamists, both women and men, across the country.

French headscarf ban opens rifts
11 Feb 04  |  Europe
German state backs headscarf ban
04 Feb 04  |  Europe
Headscarves in the headlines
10 Feb 04  |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
14 Oct 03  |  Country profiles

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