Millions of Turks waving the national flag demonstrated Wednesday to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Turkey's emergence as a modern republic. But the day's festivities are being overshadowed by fresh debate over the ban on the Islamic style headscarf in public buildings and state run schools.
The discord, pitting the country's shrinking, but rigidly pro-secular elite against the religious Muslim community, was sparked by the presidential palace's decision not to invite to the annual reception headscarf-wearing wives of parliamentary deputies.
Members of the Islamic-oriented ruling Justice and Development Party were angered by the omission and said they would be boycotting the event because of what they termed President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's undemocratic and discriminatory behavior.
Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an attempt to ease the tension, ordered members of his cabinet to show up at the president's party. More than half the ministers, including Mr. Erdogan and the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, are married to women who cover their heads in keeping with Islamic principles. None of the headscarf-wearing spouses, including that of Mr. Erdogan, were expected to attend.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based rights group, Human Rights Watch, told VOA that President Sezer's actions undermined the equality of women. "I feel that President Sezer lost an opportunity here to affirm the equality of women, because when the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] objected to the wives of parliamentarians not being invited because they might wear headscarves they argued not simply religious freedom or freedom of choice of religious garments but also the equality of women. They said it was a discrimination against their wives that they were not being invited.
"And I think what the president should have done is say I welcome the AKP's commitment to the equality of women and on those terms I would be more than happy to allow women to come and to choose whatever dress they want just as the men can choose whatever dress they want," he said.
Mr. Roth said Human Rights Watch will soon be putting out a report on the headscarf issue in Turkey.
With its parliamentary democracy and free market economy, Turkey prides itself on being one of the most Western oriented and modern societies in the Islamic world. Turkish women, in particular, enjoy many rights that are not extended to women elsewhere in Muslim countries. Many credit Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic for allowing women to vote as early as 1934 and for encouraging them to work and shed the Islamic style veil.
Mr. Ataturk saw the veil as a symbol not only of sexual repression but of Islamic fundamentalism as well. Such thinking is shared today by Turkey's powerful generals, who view themselves as the custodians of Mr. Ataturk's pro-secular legacy, a role that is enshrined in Turkish law.