Turkish PM: End Ban on Headscarves

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Umit Bektas / Turkey

Women walk past a mosque in Ankara

Not long after winning reelection in a landslide this summer, the mildly pro-Islamic Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is pressing ahead with one of the most sensitive issues in Turkish politics. Erdogan told reporters this week that he favors lifting the ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities. Under the existing constitution, enacted following a military coup in 1980, it is illegal to wear headscarves in state-funded institutions such as hospitals and universities. The rule was intended to prevent Islamist activists from taking root in the younger generation, but it has been widely criticized as excessive while also serving as a useful rallying cry for conservative Muslims. Any change would not take place before next spring, at the earliest, but the call forms part of a broader challenge by the current government and its supporters to Turkey's secularist status quo. Speaking to reporters, Erdogan said that the university boards that prevent women in headscarves from studying had no place in students' wardrobes. "It's about freedoms," he said.

Erdogan's comments have sparked fresh hand-wringing in Turkey about where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be headed in its attempts to reform Turkey's secular constitution. They have also raised questions about the role of women in this predominantly Muslim society. "We always knew that the AKP wanted to lift the ban on headscarves, but democracy is as much about style as it is about institutions. It would be better if [Prime Minister Erdogan] was less dismissive of secularist concerns in this country," Hakan Altinay, head of the Open Society Institute, a pro-democracy group in Istanbul, told TIME. Lifting the ban may be a good idea, he said, but should be combined with a broader effort to liberalize other parts of the constitution, including Turkey's draconian speech laws. He urged Erdogan to be less confrontational in his approach. That would, he added, help convince all Turks, not just AKP supporters, of the need to revise the constitution. "We are 70 million people living here and we need to learn to get along," he said.

Some traditional secularists disagree, however, doubting whether lifting the ban is wise. "I used to be in favor of allowing headscarves in universities," Ertugrul Ozkok, editor in chief of the influential Hurriyet daily wrote today. "But after the [July 22] elections I have my doubts. Can we be sure that women in Anatolian universities will be able to resist the social pressure to cover up?" The editor, whose newspaper has traditionally supported secularist laws, said he was worried about vigilantes singling out women who did not cover their hair.

For some Turkish women the issue extends beyond how students dress their hair to the broader question of how secular women can thrive in a Muslim society. In an interview last weekend, Serif Mardin, a prominent liberal sociologist, cautioned against social changes that could impinge on the freedoms of non-religious women in Turkey. "I am 100% convinced that the ban on headscarves is an anti-democratic practice," he told Hurriyet. "But I also believe Turkish women are justified in thinking that their status is in jeopardy."

First elected in 2002, Erdogan has until now skirted the politically sensitive headscarf issue. But the July election, in which his party won 47% of the popular vote, together with the appointment last month of President Abdullah Gul, a conservative Muslim, appear to have emboldened the religiously conservative party. One of its main tasks now is to revise a constitution that was introduced by a military government after a coup in 1980. The government has assigned a team of academics and lawmakers to come up with a new one. Wording of a first draft was recently leaked to the Turkish press, kicking off the debate. A full draft is expected next month.

Erdogan has a personal stake in the matter. He sent his own daughters to study in the U.S. in order to avoid the ban. In an interview in the Financial Times this week, he said: "The right to a higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears. There is no such problem in Western societies. I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve this problem." Altinay, at the Open Society, cautioned that Erdogan would be wise to try to convince secularists about need for the changes and not use his majority carelessly. "He can do it, but it would not be advisable," he said.