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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.

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"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.

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"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.