ANKARA, (Reuters) – Turkey’s parliament voted in a first round on Thursday to change the constitution to lift a ban on women students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university, a measure opposed by the secular elite.
The secular establishment, which includes army generals, judges and university rectors, fears ending the ban would undermine the separation of state and religion, one of the founding principles of the modern Turkish republic.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who heads the Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party, has pledged to uphold secularism but says he wants to allow the headscarf on the campus to boost religious and personal freedoms.
Two-thirds of Turkish women wear headscarves and many stopped going to university after a ban on wearing them in public institutions was extended to universities in 1989.
In the final vote of the first round, the planned amendment to the constitution to end the ban was approved by 404 parliamentarians to 92, easily exceeding the required two-thirds majority of 367.
The amendment, sponsored by the AKP and the opposition MHP, is expected to be approved in a final round of voting on Saturday as both parties have more than the two-thirds majority in seats between them.
It is one of the most significant moves on religious issues in predominantly Muslim but secular Turkey since a military coup in 1980 that led to a crackdown on individual rights.
Those opposed to lifting the ban see the headscarf as a symbol of their worst fears that Turkey could eventually slide into Islamic sharia law as practised in neighbouring Iran.
The ban was significantly tightened in 1997 when Turkey’s army generals, acting with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist.
More than 120,000 secular Turks in the capital Ankara and other cities held rallies on Saturday against lifting the ban.
Secular rallies last year against the AK Party’s choice of Abdulla Gul, a former Islamist, as president helped prompt an early parliamentary election.
Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, has threatened to go to the Constitutional Court if the ban is lifted.
Financial markets are closely following the headscarf debate. “We do not expect this to result in a political crisis, but we are concerned that the government’s attention will be diverted away from the much-needed structural reforms in the meantime,” said economist Yarkin Cebeci at JP Morgan Chase.
The government has been criticised for slowing down reforms required to join the European Union as well as failing to pass promised key social security changes.
Under the planned change, the headscarf ban would remain in place for teachers and civil servants.