ANKARA, (Reuters) – Turkey’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. “The 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,” 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 (miles) from the parliament in central Ankara.
The headscarf issue cuts to the heart of Muslim but secular, Western-oriented Turkey’s complex identity.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’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.
Erdogan’s own wife and daughters wear the headscarf as do those of President Abdullah Gul and many AK Party ministers. But Turkey’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. “We 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,” 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. “We are against lifting this ban, we do not want to live in a religious state,” said Ebru Okay, 32, who had travelled from the Aegean city of Izmir to join Saturday’s rally in Ankara. “They (the government) want us to become like Iran, they want to bring (Islamic) Sharia law to Turkey,” 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.
The army has remained silent during the latest debates, though senior judges and university rectors have condemned the planned changes as “unconstitutional” and dangerous.
The secularists tried last year to block parliament’s election of the AK Party’s Gul as president, forcing Erdogan to call early parliamentary polls that his party comfortably won.
Gul is now expected to sign the amendments swiftly into law, but CHP leader Deniz Baykal has said he will appeal to the Constitutional Court to block the changes.
The government must also amend a law governing the body that supervises higher education before the headscarf ban is lifted.
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 headscarf.