TURKEY: Headscarf issue poses new challenges

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to rewrite his country’s constitution to enable women to wear headscarves at state universities.

Erdogan claims the landslide victory secured by his Islamist-based AK party in elections last July gives him a mandate to reform the country’s constitution. The AK party argues that the constitution, drawn up in the aftermath of a military coup in 1980, needs to be brought into line with EU democratic norms.

The headscarf issue arouses particularly strong feelings in Turkey. This is largely because it encapsulates fundamental questions about the country’s national identity and the separation of the public secular state from private religious practice.

Under existing law, women are prohibited from wearing headscarves in state- controlled areas such as schools, universities or government offices. The ban is fiercely defended by Turkey’s powerful military establishment, which sees itself as the custodian of the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, regarded as having founded the modern Turkish state in the 1920s.

It is estimated that as many as two in every three Turkish women now cover their heads with a scarf. Many of those who wear scarves and who want to pursue a university education say they have little choice but to travel abroad.

After Semra Batur was excluded from her Turkish university, she decided to continue her studies in Azerbaijan. “Of course it was difficult,” she says. “But I did what I had to do because I wanted to take my education. We have the right to take education.”

The Islamic NGO, Mazlumder, claims that in Istanbul alone tens of thousands of women like Semra are excluded from tertiary education. It accuses Erdogan, who sent his headscarf-wearing daughters to be educated at American universities, of double standards.

Until now, Erdogan and his party have been anxious to avoid alienating the powerful Turkish military. And with some justification, since the last Islamist government was quietly deposed by the army in 1982.

But it is not just the military that views the proposed constitutional changes with suspicion. Cuneyt Akalin lectures at Istanbul’s Marmara University and describes himself as “a staunch secularist”.

Akalin believes it is essential that headscarves continue to be banned from public places if Turkey is to maintain its secular identity: “I totally defend it,” he says, “there is no other way”.

At a time when the Erdogan government is feeling under increasing pressure from a number of quarters at home and abroad, the Prime Minister may believe he has nothing to lose by pursuing the headscarf issue, no matter what the consequences.