Turkey: Turkish MPs plan reform of headscarf ban

Two major parties in Turkey have submitted a joint plan to parliament to ease a ban on the Islamic headscarf in the country's universities. Polls suggest there is strong public support for lifting the ban.
The Islamist-rooted governing AK Party and the nationalist MHP say it is an issue of human rights and freedoms. The two parties have enough votes in parliament to overturn the constitutional ban on headscarves.
A strict headscarf ban has been in force in universities since 1997. It was ordered by the secularist military. The issue is highly controversial in a mainly Muslim country whose secular elite - including the powerful military - sees the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Istanbul says. The move to ease the ban has been criticised by judges and university officials.

"Solving the headscarf issue would relax a large segment of the society," MHP leader Devlet Bahceli was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency. "It is a question of rights and freedoms," he added.

The reforms are a compromise though, our correspondent says. The proposed changes state that only traditional scarves will be permitted in universities, tied loosely under the chin. Headscarves that cover the neck, like those worn by many Turkish girls, will still be banned, as will the all-covering burka, or chador.

Power struggle

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stressed that this reform will be restricted to universities. It will not apply to women civil servants, including teachers, who are still banned from covering their heads. A power struggle last year between secular forces and the governing AK Party ended with the AKP being comprehensively re-elected in July.

Opinion polls suggest there is strong public support for lifting the ban. And some women refuse to go to university because of it.

30 January 2008