Turkish parliament lifts university headscarf ban
10 February, 2008
ANKARA: Turkeyâ€™s parliament voted on Saturday to lift a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university, a landmark decision that some Turks say will undermine the foundations of the secular state.
Parliament, where the ruling centre-right AK Party has a big majority, approved the constitutional amendments by 411 votes to 103. â€śThe proposal to change the constitution has been approved. I hope this will be for the best for Turkey and hope it is done in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation,â€ť parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan told lawmakers after the vote.
But underlining the powerful emotions the headscarf evokes, tens of thousands of people waving Turkish flags and chanting secularist slogans staged a protest rally against the changes just a few km from the parliament in central Ankara.
The headscarf issue cuts to the heart of Muslim but secular, Western-oriented Turkeyâ€™s complex identity. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoganâ€™s AK Party, which has Islamist roots, says the headscarf ban is an unfair denial of individual rights and religious liberty in a European Union candidate country where two thirds of women cover their heads.
Erdoganâ€™s own wife and daughters wear the headscarf as do those of President Abdullah Gul and many AK Party ministers. But Turkeyâ€™s old secular elite, which includes the judiciary, university rectors and army generals, regards the headscarf ban as crucial for maintaining a strict separation of state and religion.
Crucially, the government had the support on Saturday of a key nationalist party, the MHP, to push through the reforms. The staunchly secularist, main opposition CHP opposed the changes, saying they presage a slow slide towards an Islamic state.
â€śWe are not here today to discuss developments on the headscarf issue. We are here to discuss how the republic will be destroyed by putting a headscarf on it,â€ť female CHP lawmaker Bihlun Tamayligil said before the vote.
At the anti-headscarf rally, the second in Ankara in a week, feelings were running high as protesters sang patriotic songs and waved pictures of Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the modern secular Turkish republic.
â€śWe are against lifting this ban, we do not want to live in a religious state,â€ť said Ebru Okay, 32, who had travelled from the Aegean city of Izmir to join Saturdayâ€™s rally in Ankara.
â€śThey (the government) want us to become like Iran, they want to bring (Islamic) Sharia law to Turkey,â€ť said Okay. The headscarf ban in universities dates back to the 1980s but was significantly tightened in 1997 when army generals, with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist.