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Secularism in Turkey gradually being eroded

Friday 8 October 2010, by siawi

(Source: Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2010)

Turkey Rolls Back University Scarf Ban

by Marc Champion

ISTANBUL—Turkey is quietly resolving an issue that has come to symbolize the country’s bitter divisions and nearly toppled its government two years ago: Slowly, women are being allowed to wear Islamic headscarves on university campuses.

The head of Turkey’s Higher Education Board confirmed this week that he ordered Istanbul University, one of the nation’s biggest, to stop its professors from kicking students out of their classes for any reason. The directive followed a complaint from a student who was sent out of class last November for wearing a hat, worn by some students as a headscarf stand-in.

[Phpto] Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

[caption] Women protest in Ankara in July against Turkey’s university headscarf ban.

“Let alone a hat, we are against anybody being sent out of the classroom for any way of dressing,” said education-board president Yusuf Ozcan, in comments to Turkey’s NTV television channel. “We notified this [to Istanbul University]. If it is needed, we will notify other universities as well.”

Istanbul University students say faculty members told them last month that headscarves would be permitted. Some women have started wearing them, but the ban’s status remains confusing and differs widely between universities.

Turkey’s de facto prohibition of student headscarves, strictly enforced after 1997, has become a talismanic issue in the country’s so-called culture wars. Secularists, including many academics, support the ban out of fear that any dilution of Turkey’s secular laws will open floodgates to the country’s Islamization.

Religious conservatives and many liberals, meanwhile, say the rule is an abuse of individual rights that shouldn’t be tolerated in a nation negotiating to join the European Union. The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, has long pushed to lift it.

In a sign of how power is shifting here, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the main party of secularist opposition, has said in recent weeks that it, too, would support ending the ban in universities. The party of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, says it still wants to limit the style of headscarf that would be permitted.

Passions remain high. Bekir Kocazeybek, the Istanbul University clinical microbiology lecturer who sent the hat-wearing student out of his class in November, declined Tuesday to talk about his reasoning. Speaking in his university office, he produced a clutch of e-mail printouts, one of which cursed himself and his Izmir ancestors in colorful terms. He said he had received numerous threats, including death threats, since a TV station made his name public this week.

A 19-year-old classmate of the girl who was sent out of class, meanwhile, says she was among about 20 conservative women in a class of 120 who had begun wearing hats last year and have now started wearing headscarves. “I want to be a doctor, to save lives,” she said. “There’s no politics involved here.”

The headscarf ban is being enforced in a patchwork across the country, at the whim of university rectors, faculty heads and individual professors, said Ozge Genc, head of the Religion-State and Society project at Tesev, a liberal-leaning Istanbul think tank. “The university ban for women is being removed silently, but this is not enough,” she said, adding that women remain under pressure not to cover their heads.

“I take my headscarf off when I go to class but put it on when I go outside,” said 18-year-old medical student Seher, who sat outside the Istanbul University medical faculty with her head covered. “I’m afraid it would cause problems if I kept it on.”

Once the students leave university, they are excluded from working in the public sector so long as they wear a headscarf. The choice also constrains job prospects for women in Turkey in private-sector companies, according to a study about to be released by Tesev. Head coverings are often considered a liability for public-sector contracts or an embarrassment in front of outside clients, the study says.

But secularists say that public servants no longer get promotions to senior appointments unless their wives do cover their heads, a claim difficult to verify.

A headscarf ban has long been in place for public servants in Turkey, a legacy of Ataturk’s belief that they were symbols of backwardness. He famously ordered Turks to wear Western-style hats instead of the Fez and turban.

But the university ban is specified nowhere in Turkey’s constitution or laws. It was introduced after a military coup in 1980, and became strictly enforced only after 1997, when a coalition government headed by the Islamic Welfare party was forced from power. When the Justice and Development Party, formed by moderates from the Welfare party, took power in 2002, lifting the ban was a priority.

Parliament passed legislation to lift the ban in 2008. The law was struck down by Turkey’s top court on grounds that it conflicted with the constitution’s secular guarantees. The court then came within a single vote of banning the AKP as a threat to Turkey’s secular foundations.

That, however, is unlikely to be repeated. In a referendum last month, the government succeeded in driving through amendments to the constitution that will radically change the make-up of the Constitutional Court, likely ending its dominance by secularists. Turkey’s Higher Education Board, too, was once a bastion of secularism. It is now dominated by government appointees, analysts say.

Write to Marc Champion at marc.champion wsj.com