Reuters, adapted by TMO
ANKARAâ€”Turkeyâ€™s parliament lifted a ban on Saturday on female students wearing the Muslim head scarf at university, a landmark decision that some Turks fear will undermine the foundations of their secular state.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoganâ€™s ruling AK Party, which has “Islamist” roots, hailed parliamentâ€™s move as a triumph for democracy and justice in Turkey, a European Union candidate country where two thirds of women cover their heads.
â€œOur main aim is to end the discrimination experienced by a section of society just because of their personal beliefs,â€ AK Party lawmaker Sadullah Ergin told private broadcaster NTV, adding that 80 per cent of lawmakers had backed the reforms.
But underlining the powerful emotions the head scarf evokes, tens of thousands of people waving Turkish flags and chanting secularist slogans staged a protest rally against the changes just a few kilometres from the parliament in central Ankara.
Thousands of pro-secular Turk protestors wave national flags during a anti-government demonstration in Ankara on Saturday. Turkish lawmakers voted Saturday for a second time in favour of a constitutional amendment package to lift a ban on Islamic head scarves in universities.
Thousands of pro-secular Turk protestors wave national flags during a anti-government demonstration in Ankara on Saturday. Turkish lawmakers voted Saturday for a second time in favour of a constitutional amendment package to lift a ban on Islamic head scarves in universities. (AFP/Getty Images)
President Abdullah Gul is expected to approve the reform soon. The government must also amend a law governing the state body for higher education before the changes can take effect.
Turkeyâ€™s powerful secular establishment, which includes army generals, judges and university rectors, sees the head scarf as a symbol of radical Islam and believe it threatens the countryâ€™s secular order. Turkey is 99 per cent Muslim.
Parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan â€“ the second ranking official in Turkeyâ€™s state hierarchy after Mr. Gul â€“ said he hoped Turks could move beyond the divisions sparked by the reform.
â€œI hope this will be for the best of Turkey and hope it is done in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation,â€ Mr. Toptan said after lawmakers backed the changes by 411 for to 103 against.
Others were less optimistic, noting the main opposition CHP now plans to ask the Constitutional Court to block the reforms.
â€œThe polarization of Turkish society will increase,â€ said Murat Yetkin, a commentator for the liberal Radikal daily.
â€œGirls will start wearing the head scarf on campus from Monday,â€ he said.
The head scarf issue cuts to the heart of Muslim-but-secular, Western-oriented Turkeyâ€™s complex identity.
Mr. Erdogan, a pious Muslim whose own wife and daughters cover their heads, has long argued that the head scarf ban is a violation of individual and religious freedoms.
But Turkeyâ€™s old secular elite regards the head scarf ban as vital for maintaining a strict separation of state and religion.
For them, freeing the head scarf is just a first step in what they see as a long campaign by religious conservatives to undermine Turkeyâ€™s secular institutions, shut women up at home and turn Turkey away from Europe towards the Islamic world.
The AK Party denies the claims it has an Islamist agenda.
Ayse Ayata, a feminist professor of sociology at Ankaraâ€™s Middle East Technical University, said it was now important to protect female students who do not wear the head scarf against possible social pressures to cover up on campus.
â€œWearing the head scarf means accepting that as a woman you are different from birth, that you are a second-class citizen,â€ Ms. Ayata said.
Similar concerns were voiced by demonstrators at Saturdayâ€™s rally in opposition to the head scarf â€“ the second rally in Ankara in a week.
â€œI do not want my wife to have to cover herself up, but that is where all this is leading. They want to segregate men and women,â€ said Devrim Ozkaya, 31, a company employee.
Demonstrators waved pictures of Kemal Ataturk, the revered soldier-statesman who founded the Turkish republic in 1923.
â€œThey [the government] want us to become like Iran, they want to bring sharia law to Turkey,â€ said Ebru Okay, 32, who had travelled from the Aegean port of Izmir to join the rally.
The head scarf 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.
The army has remained silent during the latest debates, but senior judges and university rectors have condemned the planned changes as â€œunconstitutional.â€
Opinion polls show a majority of Turks back an easing of the ban. Even after the reforms, women professors as well as civil servants will still be prohibited from wearing the head scarf.