Turkish Lawmakers Vote on Head Scarves

Turkish Lawmakers Vote on Head Scarves

Parliament voted Saturday to amend the constitution to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves at Turkey”s universities, despite fierce opposition from the secular establishment.

Tens of thousands of Turks demonstrated in the capital, Ankara, against the amendments and called for the government”s resignation. “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” they chanted, many waving flags.

Head scarves have long been prohibited at universities in predominantly Muslim but fiercely secular Turkey, a country seeking to join the European Union.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the ban a trial for young Muslim women who are forced to remove their head scarves at campus entrances, noting that some resort to wearing wigs to class to cover their heads.

In a final vote Saturday, lawmakers voted 411-103 to approve two constitutional amendments that will add paragraphs saying everyone has the right to equal treatment from state institutions and “no one can be deprived of (his or her) right to higher education.”

The changes must be signed by President Abdullah Gul, an observant Muslim who is widely expected to approve the amendments.

One opposition lawmaker said lifting the ban amounted to “the death of the secular republic.”

The constitutional changes “will create chaos in universities and will lead to the disintegration of the nation,” said Kamer Genc, an independent.

“This is a Black Revolution. The head scarf is a political symbol,” said lawmaker Canan Aritman of the main opposition Republican People”s Party, which said it would appeal the changes. “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the dark ages.”

“You are not opening the door of freedom — you are shutting it forever for the girls,” fellow lawmaker Nesrin Baytok said. “The heads of many girls are shaved by their brothers to force them to wear head scarves.”

But Erdogan says the ban was unfair to observant women. His government pledged to change the laws governing higher education to specify which head covering will be allowed on campus and to ensure that students do not attend class in full-length chadors or burqas.

“We will end the suffering of our girls at university gates,” Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party has ties to Islam, had said Thursday.

Analysts said the government move could spark tensions with the secular establishment.

“We are really entering an environment of conflict no matter what the decision of the Constitutional Court would be,” Prof. Yilmaz Eser of the Istanbul-based Bahcesehir University told CNN-Turk television.

Islam and secularism have vied for dominance in the country since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923. He banned religious garb and changed the alphabet from the Arabic of the Quran to Latin. Secularism became a deeply ingrained ideology, with the military and judiciary as its key protectors.

Erdogan insists his party is loyal to Turkey”s secular traditions. His government says the measure is aimed at expanding democracy and freedoms.

But secularists are suspicious of Erdogan, who tried to criminalize adultery before being forced by the EU to step back, and many women fear that allowing head scarves in universities will lead eventually to their being pressured to cover their bodies as well.

“The public will come under an intense pressure,” legislator Baytok said. “This is an exploitation of religion. This law does not bring a solution; it leads the way to bigger problems.”

Most observant women in Turkey prefer a style called the “turban” — or “hijab” in Arabic — with scarves tightly wrapped around the neck over a type of bonnet covering the hair.

Erdogan”s party and the Nationalist Action Party agree that scarves should be tied loosely with a knot beneath the chin, keeping the face exposed. That attire is accepted in military barracks and guesthouses and not necessarily associated with Islam.