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Controversy Grows Over Islamic Headscarf in Turkey

Turkish women who cover their heads are vowing to pursue their battle to ease bans on the Islamic headscarf in Turkish schools and government offices. Many acknowledge that a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in mid-November in favor of the ban has weakened their case. Others blame the ruling Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party for not doing enough to end the exclusion of covered women from the national education system. From the Turkish capital Amberin Zaman reports for VOA on an issue that continues to divide overtly pious and pro-secular Turks.

They call themselves The Capital Women's Platform. Headquartered in a modest apartment in central Ankara, the advocacy group was established in the mid-1990s by a group of women professionals who wear the Islamic style headscarf in keeping with the Islamic faith.

Many were teachers who, like thousands of other covered women, lost their jobs when official attitudes towards the headscarf hardened. Smart, articulate, combative and funny, these women hardly fit the stereotype of the Islamic firebrands their pro-secular detractors insist they are.

Hatice Guler taught in government schools for 14 years before she was fired for covering her head. She says The European Court is a blow to pious Muslim women in Turkey and in Europe alike. Moreover it proves that eventual European Union membership will not necessarily solve the headscarf issue in Turkey.

Mrs. Guler says her dismissal coincided with the rise to power of Turkey's first Islamist-led government in 1996. That government was forced out of power by Turkey's militantly pro-secular Armed Forces a year later, on charges that it was seeking to introduce Islamic rule.

With bans enforced more strictly than ever before, thousands of Turkish women who cover their heads have since been denied an education and jobs in government. They are not permitted to run for parliament either.

When the ruling Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power alone three years ago, many hoped it would end the headscarf ban. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's wife covers her head as do the spouses of most cabinet ministers. But Mr. Erdogan has failed to move on the issue for fear of provoking Turkey's ever powerful Armed Forces.

Mr. Erdogan, however, strongly condemned the European Court's ruling saying the headscarf was a matter for Islamic jurists and not secular courts. The ruling would dampen Turkey's appetite for E.U. membership he added. In a sign of just how sensitive the issue remains, a Turkish prosecutor launched an investigation to establish whether the prime minister had with those words violated the secular principles of the constitution.

Nuriye Ozsoy is a spokeswoman for the Capital Women's group. She agrees that the headscarf issue remains a political minefield. Like many, she insists that government must display greater courage if it wants to retain the loyalty of its pious constituents.

Mrs. Ozsoy notes that the government's failure to field covered women candidates in municipal elections held nationwide in March 2003 was a bitter blow.

Safiye Ozdemir is the Capital Women's platform's rotating chairwoman. She says the platform is planning to back an independent woman candidate who wears the headscarf in parliamentary elections that are scheduled in November 2007.

Mrs. Ozdemir adds that even if their candidate fails to win a seat, her candidacy will ensure that the headscarf issue remains on the political agenda.