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Turkey's Parliament Eases Ban on Islamic Head Scarves at Universities

Dorian Jones

Turkey's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has succeeded in changing the country's constitution to ease a ban on Islamic head scarves worn in universities. But the move is proving controversial, with opponents of the reform saying it threatens the secular foundation of Turkey. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

Turkey's parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of two constitutional amendments that ease the ban on Islamic head scarves in universities. But the reform is dividing the country.

As deputies were voting, tens of thousands of people demonstrated close to parliament in support of the head scarf ban.

One woman tells VOA her way of life is being threatened.

"They want to change the regime," she said. "They want Turkey to turn into a moderate Islamic state from a secular one. But we are here as Turkish citizens and we will use our democratic rights until the very end...."

Although Turkey's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, it has been a strictly secular state since 1923. Easing the head scarf ban in universities has fueled concern that the majority Justice and Development party is trying to undermine secularism. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking earlier this week, denied any secret agenda, saying the party is only ending discrimination against religiously dressed women.

He said Turkey is taking an important step and "everyone should know we don't have any other goal than to end the victimization of the girls who are locked out of our universities."

Opponents of the head scarf ban claim hundreds of thousands of women were barred from university since the measure was introduced in 1980.

Prime Minister Erdogan made ending the head scarf ban a key policy in last July's general election which his party won in a landslide.

He has been under pressure from his conservative base to ease the restriction. The latest opinion polls show a majority of the people favor lifting the ban and six out of 10 women wear headscarves.

But although the constitutional amendments passed, it remains unclear whether universities will open their doors to Islamically dressed women. And women will continue to be banned from wearing the headscarf in government buildings.

Leading figures of the judiciary have condemned Saturday's vote, and the reform is likely to be challenged in the Constitutional Court.

Analysts fear that the controversy could put Turkey's government in direct confrontation with the country's highest court.

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