Turkey votes to lift head-scarf ban, but battle continues

The country's leading secular opposition party has vowed to appeal this weekend's decision to lift a head-scarf ban to Turkey's top court.

By , Correspondent 

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    Ban lifted: At an Ankara rally Saturday against Turkey's head-scarf ban, women wore paper bags over their heads to denounce the restrictions.
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With its vote Saturday ending a decades-old ban on wearing head scarves in public universities, Turkey's parliament may have marked a historical moment in the ongoing struggle between religion and secularism in this predominantly Muslim country.

But concerns remain in Turkey that the government's zeal for lifting the ban could undermine other reforms, particularly those relating to democratization and the country's ongoing European Union membership bid.

"Some intellectuals [who support the government] are starting to have second thoughts about whether [it] has a well-defined strategy for change for Turkey, and what triggered this doubt is the priority that the government has put on the head-scarf issue," says veteran Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

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While 60 percent of Turks said in a recent poll that they supported ending restrictions on Islamic head gear, the reaction from the country's secular establishment has been forceful, meaning the issue may not be settled just yet.

Although Turkey's powerful military, considered the ultimate guardian of the country's secular system, has, for now, remained quiet on the issue, the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main secular opposition party in parliament, has vowed to appeal this weekend's vote to the Turkey's top court..

"The aim [of the legislation] is to erode the principle of secularism in the Constitution," said Kemal Anadol, spokesman for the CHP, at the start of the debate in parliament last week.

The constitutional reform package that ended the head-scarf ban zipped through parliament, after being introduced only a few weeks ago by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. At the same time, the past year has seen many of Turkey's EU-related reforms stall.

For example, Article 301 of the penal code, which has marred Turkey's record on freedom of expression issues, remains unchanged despite numerous promises from the government to amend it. Meanwhile, the draft version of a new civilian-minded constitution, meant to replace one written by the military following a 1980 coup, has been ready for months but has yet to be presented by the government.

Ali Babacan, Turkey's foreign minister, said lifting the ban was being done as part of fulfilling the country's EU membership requirements. But EU officials said the issue was strictly a domestic Turkish matter.

"The fighting over the head-scarf issue is distracting from dealing with other issues and could make it more difficult for the different sides to come together on these issues, if it reinforces antagonisms and skepticism," says a European diplomat based in Ankara.

"It is unfortunate that this has taken priority over these other issues, such as the reform of 301 and the constitutional process as a whole. We hear from the government that reforms are in the pipeline ... but those never come true," says the diplomat.

Also worrisome for observers was that in order to pass the head-scarf legislation, the AKP had to enter what some have termed an "unholy alliance" with the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a hard-line group that has taken a rejectionist stance on many of Turkey's EU reforms. Already the parliamentary debate over a bill that would provide for the return of property confiscated by the Turkish state from religious minority groups has been delayed by the AKP government in order not to antagonize the MHP, which opposes the legislation.

"What sort of freedom is it that allows you to free head scarves without thinking of changing discriminatory and assimilatory policies against [non-Sunni Muslim] Alevis and non-Muslims?" wrote Yildirim Turker, a columnist with Radikal, a liberal daily.

Many academics, meanwhile, say the focus on the head-scarf issue is obscuring the need for reforms in Turkey's higher education system. The same 1982 Constitution that created the head-scarf ban also put in place a highly centralized and bureaucratic university system that many academics say stifles academic freedom.

But Sahin Alpay, a professor at Istanbul's Bahcesehir university and a leading Turkish liberal secularist, says getting the head-scarf issue out of the way may actually make it easier to bring about other constitutional changes. "The discussion of the new constitution will not be overshadowed by this extremely divisive issue," he says.

The AKP government says it pushed for lifting the ban in the name of human rights and civil liberties.

"Our main aim is to end the discrimination experienced by a section of society just because of their personal beliefs," AKP parliamentarian Sadullah Ergin recently told private broadcaster NTV.

Because of the ban, many covered women go abroad to study. (The covered daughters of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's were forced to go to the US in order to attend university.) Other women have resorted to wearing wigs over their head scarves in order to attend classes.

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