Turkish Bill Could End Islamic Head Scarf Ban at Universities

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A bill that would lift a decades-old ban on women wearing head scarves at universities was submitted to Turkey's Parliament Tuesday. The move worried secularists, who fear the government is raising the profile of Islam in this Muslim but secular country.

Deniz Baykal, leader of the pro-secular Republican People's Party, called the attempt to lift the ban a "threat against the republic." Lawmakers could vote on the bill as early as next week.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned religious attire in daily life. The ban has been vigorously enforced in public offices and schools since a 1980 military coup.

An explanation for the change submitted to the Parliament by lawmakers said ending the ban was essential to achieve the standards of freedom Ataturk set. Constitutional amendment proposals always include an explanation of the reasons a change is needed.

Under the new proposal, female students would be allowed to wear head scarves at universities as long as they tied them under the chin, leaving their faces more exposed.

"Chadors, veils and burqas will not be allowed," Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli said in reference to Islamic clothing that covers the body from head to toe. "No one will be allowed to use head scarves as political statements against the state."

On Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party and the opposition Nationalist Action Party reached a deal to make changes in the constitution and the Higher Education Law that would allow women to wear head scarves.

The two parties together have more votes than the two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly required to amend the constitution and lift the head scarf ban.

Last year, secularists backed by the military unsuccessfully opposed Abdullah Gul's presidential bid partly because his wife wears a head scarf. Parliament voted him into the post in August.

Gul's wife challenged Turkey's head scarf ban at the European Court of Human Rights after being barred from university in 1998 — only to withdraw her complaint when her husband became foreign minister.

Hakki Suha Okay, a prominent lawmaker of the Republican People's Party, said their opposition to any attempts to lift the head scarf ban remained. He said they would appeal to judiciary if the parliament approves the new proposal.

"Those who have open or secret aims against the secular democratic republic, those who want to change the regime are aiming to damage the Constitutional system," said Tayfun Icli, a lawmaker of the Democratic Left Party, the other staunchly secular party.

Erdogan rebuffed the criticism, saying: "The government is the guarantor and protector of the republic, secularism, the democracy and the state of law. None of our steps or practices have been contrary to that and nor will they ever be."

The ban on the Islamic head scarf in public offices as well as in universities has been a source of tension among Turkish public and politicians alike.

In one high-profile case in November, a military officer ordered a girl wearing a headscarf to leave a high school stage, where she was waiting to receive a prize in a writing competition.

The girl burst into tears, and Erdogan reportedly called the girl's family in the southern city of Adana to express support and promise an investigation

The Turkish military considers itself the guardian of modern principles set by Ataturk and has occasionally expressed unease over the ruling party's policies.

A member of a pro-Islamic party was booed out of the swearing-in session in the parliament in 1999 for wearing a head scarf and was banned from taking the parliamentary oath.

Merve Kavakci, the banned legislator, was later stripped of her citizenship by a court who said she had become a U.S. citizen without asking permission from Turkish authorities, as required by law.

The Virtue Party, of which Kavakci was a member, was shut down in 2001 by Turkey's top court, which said it was a focal point for anti-secular activities.