Headscarf ban relaxed in Turkey
Istanbul – The relaxing of a ban on Turkish students wearing Islamic headscarves to college has done little to silence a debate about the limits to the enforcement of secularism on campus.
The Higher Education Board (YOK), which oversees universities, instructed professors earlier this month not to kick out students because of their outfit, a move which effectively put an end to the longstanding the headscarf ban.
The YOK decree – issued upon a complaint by an Istanbul University student – amounted to a reversal of a decision by the same body 12 years ago that had led to the ban, forcing hundreds of girls to either quit their education or wear wigs or caps to conceal their headscarves.
Many universities have now opened their doors to veiled students, but others maintain the ban, contesting the legality of the decree, which came after the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) took control of YOK.
Much to the ruling party's ire, the constitutional court had scrapped a government-sponsored amendment in 2008 to let women wear headscarves on campus on the grounds the ban was necessary to protect Turkey's secular system.
The lifting of the ban has been warmly welcomed by many students who had previously tried other more unconventional ways of covering themselves.
"We looked ridiculous, with our hats and raised collars... especially in summer. I felt bad when people turned to look at me in the corridors," said Tugba Pistofoglu, a student of engineering at Istanbul Technical University.
"I'm now going to class with more pleasure. And as I can express myself freely, I think it will also play on my grades."
However Fatma Benli, a lawyer who has specialised in the defence of veiled students, estimated that about half of the some 100 universities in the country still enforce the ban.
Moreover, she said, "in some cases, students can enter campus but professors tell them privately they should remove the veil, or give them a bad grade, or will draw up a disciplinary file, and sometimes kick even them out of class".
The wrangling reached a climax last week when Turkey's chief prosecutor issued a harsh warning against lifting the ban, saying that such a move would constitute a breach of Turkey's secular principles.
The warning came shortly after AKP officials had began meetings with opposition lawmakers in a bid to hammer out a parliamentary compromise to abolish the ban.
The initiative was launched after Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the secularist main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), also said he favoured an end to the ban, marking a U-turn from his party's previous line.
The AKP, backed by many secular liberals, insists the ban flouts freedom of conscience and the right to education.
But hopes for compromise were quickly dashed as the CHP accused the government of having a secret Islamist agenda, pointing at AKP reluctance to guarantee that the headscarf would remain prohibited in schools and public offices.
In the meantime, about 1 000 academics signed a petition against easing restrictions in universities.
"The issue is not about the freedom to wear the headscarf, but the freedom not to wear it," Alpaslan Isikli, a scholar leading the campaign, told the Milliyet daily.
His remarks echoed the fears of many secularists that allowing the headscarf on campus will increase social pressure on women to cover up and pave the way for lifting similar bans in schools and government offices.
But Kubra Nurcakmak, a veiled student of political science at Istanbul University, dismissed such fears out of hand, pointing at her friend Kevser, who did not cover up.
"We never had a conflict on the issue. Do you really think I'm going to pressure or alienate her?" she said.