- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Parliament voted yesterday to amend the constitution to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves at Turkey’s universities, despite fierce opposition from the secular establishment.

Tens of thousands of Turks demonstrated in the capital, Ankara, against the amendments and called for the government’s resignation. “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” they chanted, many waving flags.

Head scarves long have been prohibited at universities in predominantly Muslim but fiercely secular Turkey, a country seeking to join the European Union, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the ban a trial for young Muslim women who are forced to remove their head scarves at campus entrances, noting that some resort to wearing wigs to class to cover their heads.

In a final vote yesterday, lawmakers voted 411-103 to approve two constitutional amendments that will add paragraphs saying everyone has the right to equal treatment from state institutions and “no one can be deprived of [his or her] right to higher education.”

The changes must be signed by President Abdullah Gul, an observant Muslim who is widely expected to approve the amendments.

One opposition lawmaker said lifting the ban amounted to “the death of the secular republic.”

The constitutional changes “will create chaos in universities and will lead to the disintegration of the nation,” said Kamer Genc, an independent.

“This is a black revolution. The head scarf is a political symbol,” said lawmaker Canan Aritman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which said it would appeal the changes. “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the Dark Ages.”

“You are not opening the door of freedom — you are shutting it forever for the girls,” fellow lawmaker Nesrin Baytok said. “The heads of many girls are shaved by their brothers to force them to wear head scarves.”

But Mr. Erdogan said the ban was unfair to observant women. His government pledged to change the laws governing higher education to specify which head covering will be allowed on campus and to ensure that students do not attend class in full-length chadors or burqas.

Islam and secularism have vied for dominance in the country since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923. He banned religious garb and changed the alphabet from the Arabic of the Koran to Latin. Secularism became a deeply ingrained ideology, with the military and judiciary as its key protectors.


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