ANKARA (Combined Sources)–Turkey’s parliament lifted a ban on Saturday on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university, a landmark decision that some Turks fear will undermine the foundations of their secular state.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, which has Islamist roots, hailed parliament’s move as a triumph for democracy and justice in Turkey, a European Union candidate country where two thirds of women cover their heads.
"Our main aim is to end the discrimination experienced by a section of society just because of their personal beliefs," AK Party lawmaker Sadullah Ergin told private broadcaster NTV, adding that 80 percent of lawmakers had backed the reforms.
But underlining the powerful emotions the headscarf evokes, tens of thousands of people waving Turkish flags and chanting secularist slogans staged a protest rally against the changes just a few km (miles) from the parliament in central Ankara.
President Abdullah Gul is expected to approve the reform soon. The government must also amend a law governing the state body for higher education before the changes can take effect.
Turkey’s powerful secular establishment, which includes army generals, judges and university rectors, sees the headscarf as a symbol of radical Islam and believe it threatens the country’s secular order. Turkey is 99 percent Muslim.
Parliamentary Speaker Koksal Toptan–the second ranking official in Turkey’s state hierarchy after Gul–said he hoped Turks could move beyond the divisions sparked by the reform.
"I hope this will be for the best of Turkey and hope it is done in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation," Toptan said after lawmakers backed the changes by 411 for to 103 against.
Others were less optimistic, noting the main opposition CHP now plans to ask the Constitutional Court to block the reforms.
"The polarization of Turkish society will increase," said Murat Yetkin, a commentator for the liberal Radikal daily.
"Girls will start wearing the headscarf on campus from Monday," he said.
The headscarf issue cuts to the heart of Muslim but secular, Western-oriented Turkey’s complex identity. Erdogan, a pious Muslim whose own wife and daughters cover their heads, has long argued that the headscarf ban is a violation of individual and religious freedoms. But Turkey’s old secular elite regards the headscarf ban as vital for maintaining a strict separation of state and religion.
For them, freeing the headscarf is just a first step in what they see as a long campaign by religious conservatives to undermine Turkey’s secular institutions, shut women up at home and turn Turkey away from Europe towards the Islamic world. The AK Party denies the claims it has an Islamist agenda.
Ayse Ayata, a feminist professor of sociology at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said it was now important to protect female students who do not wear the headscarf against possible social pressures to cover up on campus.
"Wearing the headscarf means accepting that as a woman you are different from birth, that you are a second class citizen," Ayata said.
Similar concerns were voiced by demonstrators at Saturday’s anti-headscarf rally, the second in Ankara in a week.
"I do not want my wife to have to cover herself up, but that is where all this is leading. They want to segregate men and women," said Devrim Ozkaya, 31, a company employee.
Demonstrators waved pictures of Kemal Ataturk, the revered soldier-statesman who founded the Turkish republic in 1923.
"They (government) want us to become like Iran, they want to bring (Islamic) Sharia law to Turkey," said Ebru Okay, 32, who had traveled from the Aegean port of Izmir to join the rally.
The headscarf ban in universities dates back to the 1980s but was significantly tightened in 1997 when army generals, with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist.
The army has remained silent during the latest debates, but senior judges and university rectors have condemned the planned changes as "unconstitutional".
Opinion polls show a majority of Turks back an easing of the ban. Even after the reforms, women professors as well as civil servants will still be prohibited from wearing the headscarf.