Turkish pres backs uni headscarves

Alex Coke-Woods 31 January 2008

The President of Turkey has backed controversial plans to lift a ban preventing female students from wearing Islamic headscarves in universities.

President Abdullah Gul’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam, has struck a deal with the nationalist MHP party. Together, the two parties have enough votes to overturn the ban in Parliament.

“Universities should not be places of political controversy; beliefs should be practised freely at universities,” the President told a press conference in his hometown of Kayseri, last week.

Although the majority of voters in the constitutionally secular state of Turkey support the proposals, a vocal minority remain fiercely opposed to removing the ban, which is regarded by many as a symbol of the separation of state and religion.

And while Turkey’s ceremonial head of state is supposed to be a neutral figure standing above the political fray, few are surprised that President Gul has chosen to support the AKP in overturning the ban, which has been in place since 1989.

Under ordinary circumstances, measures such as this would normally expect to receive a Presidential veto for being unconstitutional.

But when Mr Gul’s candidature for the presidency was announced early last year and half a million secularists took to the streets in protest, it was partly due to the fact that his wife chooses to wear a headscarf.

On that occasion the army, which sees itself as the defender of secular Turkey, issued coup threats on its website. At present, the military has yet to make its position clear on the current proposals.

Cambridge University Islamic Society has welcomed the news. Suhel Mistry, Islamic Soc President commented: “We are pleased to hear of this new move to give this right back to women.”

“The headscarf ban is an unnecessary barrier to those women who wish to continue their education but feel they are being forced to compromise their religious beliefs. Some simply compromise their education instead.”

Alex Coke-Woods