x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Turkey's headscarf issue far from dead

A hotly contested issue is about to make a comeback on to Turkey's political stage: the headscarf problem.

ISTANBUL // After dominating the political debate in Turkey for much of the first half of the year and bringing the ruling party to the brink of being banned by the country's highest court, one hotly contested issue is about to make a comeback on the political stage: the headscarf problem. With the new academic year at most of Turkey's 129 universities starting this week, female students who wear the headscarf are facing another term of what many of them see as discrimination, because rules do not allow them to wear the headscarf on university grounds.

"I have to take off my headscarf at university," said Nazli Cinar, 24, a student at Istanbul's Marmara University. Ms Cinar wears the turban, a tightly knotted headscarf that covers hair and neck and is seen as a symbol of political Islam by secularists in Turkey. "I don't think there will be a solution to the problem in the near future," Ms Cinar said after stepping off a Bosphorus ferry in Besiktas, a busy district on Istanbul's European side. "But still I am in favour of such a solution."

The question whether or not female students should be allowed to wear the headscarf on campus divides Turkish society. At the same ferry stop in Besiktas, Asli Kormaz, 30, who has graduated from university, said she supported the headscarf ban. "It should be banned, absolutely," she said about the veil. "Turkey is a secular republic." At Istanbul's prestigious Bosphorus University, young women in headscarves on their way onto the campus were seen entering a little booth by the main entrance and emerging with their headscarves gone, but with their hair hidden under hats. They declined to be interviewed for this article.

Hats are just one way to comply with the rules. Some students cover their heads with the hoods of their jackets or put on wigs in order to comply with the headscarf ban without showing their hair. Photos for student ID cards have to be taken with open hair. Last February, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has roots in political Islam, joined forces with a small nationalist party to push a constitutional amendment through parliament that was designed to allow students to wear the headscarf on campus. The AKP argued that it was unfair to exclude women with headscarves from higher education; according to polls, two out of three women in Turkey cover their hair. But the Constitutional Court in Ankara cancelled the amendment in June, ruling it violated the principle of secularism.

With parliament's decision and the subsequent verdict by the Constitutional Court, the headscarf issue became the main battleground in the conflict between a rising class of observant Muslims, led by the AKP, and Turkey's traditional Kemalist elites in the army, the judiciary and parts of the bureaucracy, who see themselves as heirs to the secular values of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The headscarf issue also played an important role in the trial against the AKP before the Constitutional Court. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief prosecutor, who wanted the court to ban the ruling party, cited the headscarf law as one example for what he sees as the AKP's Islamic tendencies. The court ruled in late July that the AKP had indeed shown signs of being an Islamic organisation and came close to banning the party.

The court issued a stern warning to the AKP, and many observers said a possible new attempt by the government to loosen the headscarf ban could result in the party being closed down in a fresh trial. The written opinion of the court in both the headscarf and the AKP rulings are expected to be published in early October. Critics of the AKP say the party and its followers have started to use other tactics to get what they want in the headscarf issue. They point to personnel changes at universities and in the administration of higher education. As Turkish laws give university rectors far-reaching rights to shape the way their campuses are run, interpretations of the headscarf ban differ widely. At some universities, headscarves have to come down at the gate, while at others female students have to take off their headscarves only in lecture halls.

Opposition politicians and newspapers have accused Abdullah Gul, the president and a former AKP prime minister and foreign minister, of using his powers to appoint university rectors to install supporters of less strict headscarf rules in leading positions. When Mr Gul recently appointed rectors to 23 new universities that are opening up throughout Turkey, he selected 16 academics known for their tolerance towards the headscarf, reports said.

While the political battle around the headscarf is heating up again, a prominent pollster predicted that the number of women wearing the headscarf in Turkey would drop dramatically over the coming years. Contrary to what many critics of the Erdogan government have been saying, Turkey was not getting more conservative, but more modern and more western in outlook, Adil Gur, head of the polling firm A and G, told the Taraf newspaper.

"75 per cent of women over 43 years cover their hair, but less than half of women in the age group between 18 and 27 years do so," Mr Gur said. "This shows that the proportion of headscarf wearers and pious people in Turkey will decrease over the next years." tseibert@thenational.ae