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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 17:47 GMT
Turkey divided over headscarf ban
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Ankara

A woman at a protest demanding the right to wear a headscarf (file photo)
Headscarves have been seen as a symbol of political Islam
Turkey's parliament has voted in favour of overturning a ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities.

The government argued that changing the constitution was crucial to ensure all women had equal access to a higher education.

But far from offering a definitive solution, this ruling threatens to cause chaos.

Women have been banned from covering their heads in all state offices and institutions in Turkey for decades.

It is part of the strict division between religion and politics in a country where at least 99% of the population is Muslim.

In the 1980s the headscarf was also prohibited at all universities, declared a symbol of political Islam.

Turkey's current government, led by religious conservatives, has long pledged to overturn that.

But it is a highly controversial and divisive issue.

'Stay secular'

As parliament met to vote on Saturday tens of thousands of protesters jammed the streets of the capital. Muslims - demonstrating against the Islamic headscarf.

Turks give their views on the relaxation of the headscarf ban

Many were women who fear that relaxing the rules on the headscarf is a first step towards increasing the influence of Islam on society.

They see it as a serious threat to their own non-religious way of life - changing the face of modern Turkey.

"Turkey is secular and will stay secular!" they shouted, turning the whole area bright red with thousands of national flags.

"We consider [wearing the headscarf on campus] not as a right, but as imposing religious beliefs into our laws, our constitution," insists Ural Akbulut, rector of Ankara's prestigious METU university.

A portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - who founded Turkey as a secular Republic - looks down from the wall of his wood-panelled office.

"We say that will damage secularity. Once you do that, you damage democracy," the professor explains.

I think people should learn that we are human beings too. We have the same feelings as they do
Rabia, student

"Secularism is like a diamond. Once it has a defect, its worth is halved."

His view is shared by Turkey's powerful secular establishment, including the military.

It was to safeguard secularism that the generals forced from power a government they deemed too Islamist a decade ago.

The headscarf ban in universities began to be strictly enforced after that.

But for some students that translates into a daily humiliation.

Rabia reads history at METU and has to remove her scarf every day before she arrives on campus.

Pro-secular protestors wave national Turkish flags during an anti-government demonstration in Ankara (09/02/2008)
Many fear the ban reversal is a move away from secularism

She wears a wig instead, but says she has been hounded out of a lecture hall in the past even for that.

"I think people should learn that we are human beings too. We have the same feelings as they do," Rabia complains.

"I think they should get rid of their prejudice."

Another friend went abroad to study rather than remove her scarf, which she calls an expression of her personal faith.

"It is a baseless phobia, there is nothing to be scared of," she argues, dismissing talk that the scarf is a subversive symbol.

"It is a question of freedom."

Those who implement the law should see that this is the will of the people, and adjust their approach accordingly
Yasar Yakis, AK Party MP

That is how the governing AK party explains its efforts to reverse the ban, in a country where two thirds of women cover their heads.

"If tens of thousands demonstrated against this reform, then 19 million 999 thousand support it," argues AK Party MP Yasar Yakis.

"The injustice is there. The problem had to be solved," he says.

Legal challenge

The government argues its constitutional changes now secure the legal right for women to study with covered heads, should they want to.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) participates in the vote over headscarves in Turkey's universities (06/02/2008)
The AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan (right) has Islamist roots

"We believe that what is expected from us politicians has been done," says Mr Yakis and suggests the next step is down to the universities themselves.

"Those who implement the law should see that this is the will of the people, and adjust their approach accordingly," he argues.

But the reformed articles of the constitution stop well short of mentioning the Islamic headscarf outright.

The government's proposal to do that in addition - in the Higher Education law - is even more controversial, and currently on hold.

Turkey's main opposition party has pledged to challenge all the legal changes in the constitutional court.

And in the meantime prominent university rectors have declared they will continue to refuse covered girls access to campus.

"Our right to a higher education in the headscarf is now secured by law. The ban has no legal basis," argues Fatma Benli, a lawyer and pro-headscarf activist.

Girls will try to force their way in, faculty members will keep them out
Ural Akbulut, METU rector

But she believes that is irrelevant when the issue is a political one, like this, not a legal one.

"University rectors see themselves as above the law. They refuse to take the girls in, and that is the end of the discussion."

After weeks of fierce debate - on the streets, and in the media - passions on both sides are running high.

There are already signs of increased polarisation and tension.

If students decide to put the new laws into practice some predict that could spill over into open confrontation.

"Girls will try to force their way in, faculty members will keep them out," argues Mr Akbulut.

"This will cause turbulence and conflict."

In this climate it seems unlikely many girls will attempt to test the system just yet.

But round one in this landmark fight is over. All eyes are on the constitutional court now, for its verdict.

Turkey eases ban on headscarves
09 Feb 08 |  Europe
Why Muslim women wear the veil
05 Oct 06 |  Middle East
Turkey faces testing year ahead
02 Jan 08 |  Europe

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