February 27, 2008 / 11:34 AM / 12 years ago

Turk party asks top court to block headscarf reform

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s main opposition party said on Wednesday it had asked the Constitutional Court to quash a government-backed reform aimed at easing a ban on women students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university.

The move by the staunchly secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) comes amid increased tensions between Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government and a powerful secular elite that says the reform will erode the separation of state and religion.

“(The reforms) appear to contradict the principle enshrined in the constitution that states ‘the sacred feelings of religion must absolutely not be mixed up with state affairs and policy’,” the CHP said in its appeal lodged at the court.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling centre-right AK Party, backed by a key nationalist party in parliament, says the constitutional amendments will boost individual freedoms in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership.

Parliament voted through the amendments on February 9 and President Abdullah Gul approved them last Friday.

Under the changes, the headscarf ban will still apply for women professors as well as for civil servants in Turkey, a country where some two thirds of women cover their heads.

Only scarves tied beneath the chin, in traditional Turkish style, would be allowed on campus. The increasingly fashionable wrap-round headscarf, seen as a symbol of political Islam, and the burka, covering the whole body, would remain banned.

EMOTIVE ISSUE

The issue evokes powerful emotions in Muslim but constitutionally secular Turkey and has triggered a series of large protest rallies.

“It is inevitable that unlimited freedom of dress would harm and even destroy social peace and national solidarity,” said the CHP in its legal appeal, which was also backed by the small Democratic Left Party (DSP).

Secularists say allowing women to wear the headscarf in universities would gradually lead to social pressure on all women to cover up their heads in Turkey and pave the way for discrimination against those who resisted.

“It is clear that the headscarf and similar garments... will become symbolic of a world view contrary to the basic principles of the Republic and the freedom of women,” the CHP said.

The body that supervises Turkish higher education, known as YOK, is also split over the issue, with its new chairman Yusuf Ziya Ozcan backing the reform against hardline secularist rectors who agree with the CHP that it is illegal and dangerous.

Ozcan has said students wearing the headscarf should now be allowed onto campuses but many rectors argue that parliament must first amend a related law governing YOK.

This week, Turkish television and newspapers have reported that some universities have started to allow women wearing headscarves onto their grounds while many others have not.

“The turmoil continues in the universities,” said the headline of the centrist Milliyet daily on Wednesday.

The headscarf ban in universities dates back to the 1980s but was tightened in 1997 when army generals, with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist. The army has remained largely quiet during the latest headscarf debates.

(Additional reporting by Hidir Goktas)

Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia

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