- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ISTANBUL — The Turkish government yesterday introduced a constitutional amendment that would end a decade-long ban on female students wearing head scarves in universities, a move that has stirred fear and anger among the secular elite.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP, as it is known by its Turkish acronym) has been under pressure from its hard-line base to make the change since it first came to power in 2002.

Last week, it struck a deal on the issue with a conservative nationalist party, securing the needed two-thirds of the votes in parliament to change the constitution. Legislation was introduced yesterday.

Turkey’s president — who has the power to block the legislation — also appears to have given a green light to the proposed amendment, under which the scarves would have to be tied under the chin, leaving women’s faces more exposed.

“Universities should not be places of political controversy,” President Abdullah Gul, a former AKP foreign minister, said Friday. “Beliefs should be practiced freely.”

But opponents of the head scarf — including large numbers of military leaders, judges and prominent academics — argue that the amendment would encourage Islamic forces that use the scarf as a political symbol.

“If you allow the head scarf in universities today, an Islamic state will follow in 10 years,” wrote political analyst Ibrahim Kalin, reflecting opinion among staunch secularists.

So far, army commanders have refrained from comment, but Turks are well aware that the military has overthrown four governments that it considered to be too Islamic.

Nevertheless, polls find majority support for lifting the ban. Based on a ruling made by the Constitutional Court in 1989 but strictly enforced only since the military-led expulsion of an Islamist party from power in 1997, the ban is widely seen as unjust.

“All citizens should have equal rights,” said Ayla Kerimoglu, a spokeswoman for Hazar, an Istanbul-based group that provides educational services to veiled women. “Instead, we’re made to feel like strangers in our own country.”

University rectors have considerable leeway in enforcing the ban, contributing to the controversy. While a few turn a blind eye to covered girls, others ban students who simply try to sidestep the issue by donning wigs when they arrive on campus.

In 2005, a university in the northeastern city of Erzurum sparked a furor when guards refused to allow mothers wearing head scarves to attend their children’s graduation ceremony.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected claims that his party was seeking to erode secular traditions.

“How can you say that people who wear the head scarf are not secular?” he asked Saturday. “We have a society in which those who cover up and those who do not both defend the democratic and secular state.”

Concerns over the amendment are not restricted to extreme secularists. Former social democrat politician Tarhan Erdem speaks for many when he says he is worried the changes risk turning universities “into no-go areas for the minority of girls who do not cover up.”

There are also fears that poorly drafted changes could undermine bans on head scarves among state workers and primary- and secondary-school children.

Ergun Ozbudun, a liberal constitutional specialist and head of a government commission that recently completed a new draft constitution, reportedly told Mr. Erdogan over the weekend that any amendment must specifically mention universities.

Andrew Borowiec contributed to this article from Nicosia, Cyprus.

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