Turkish parties launch compromise on headscarf reform

Ankara, Turkey - Turkey's ruling AK Party and opposition nationalists launched plans on Tuesday to ease a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities that try to address the worries of the country's secular elite.

Turkish secularists, who include army generals and judges, have long opposed any easing of the ban, saying it could harm the separation of state and religion. The issue sparked early polls last year after mass secular rallies and army warnings.

A parliament official told Reuters the proposal was sent to parliament on Tuesday evening with the signatures of 348 deputies from the AK Party and the nationalist MHP, whose support is needed to push through the reform.

"Our sole goal is to end the injustice against our women students, we have no other aim. These changes are limited to higher education," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his religiously oriented AK Party in televised remarks.

Erdogan, who once served a short jail sentence for reading a poem deemed too Islamist and whose wife and daughters all wear the headscarf, has to tread warily for fear of provoking a tough reaction from the army generals.

The staunchly secular army, with public backing, ousted a government it saw as too Islamist as recently as 1997.

The new proposal would only lift the ban for women who tie the headscarf under their chin in the traditional Turkish way. The increasingly popular wrap-round version, seen as a symbol of political Islam, will continue to be banned on campuses.

Burqas -- which cover the whole body -- and other forms of Islamic dress will remain banned. University teachers and civil servants will continue to be barred from covering their heads.

"Under our plan, the (woman's) face must remain open and so a person will not be permitted to conceal her identity," MHP leader Devlet Bahceli told his MPs in televised remarks.


Financial markets are closely watching the debate, fearful of revived tensions in the European Union candidate nation between the Islamist-rooted AK Party and the secular elite.

Underlining the acute sensitivity of the headscarf issue, the AK Party launched a probe on Monday into one of its deputies who said the eventual goal was to lift the ban entirely. The MP could face party disciplinary proceedings.

"We know there are people who are trying to provoke this process, but I believe we will all act with a view to strengthening social harmony," said Erdogan, who is under strong AK Party grassroots pressure to reform the law.

"Turkish politics has suffered a great deal because of rigid (secularist) prejudices," he added to strong applause from women wearing headscarves in the gallery listening to his address.

Members of Turkey's judiciary and university rectors have already criticised the headscarf moves as unconstitutional and damaging to "social peace". But the army, which sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of the secular order, has stayed quiet.

The reform will involve amending two articles of the constitution and parts of a law governing YOK, the body that supervises higher education. YOK is a pillar of the secular order but its new head has called for an easing of the ban.

Despite the relatively modest scope of the planned reform, secularists are worried that in practice the changes will over time increase pressure on women, especially in conservative rural areas, to cover their heads.

"When the ban is lifted, there will be such pressure that it will be nearly impossible for women not to cover their heads," Ergun Ozbudun, a professor at Ankara's Bilkent University, told CNN Turk television.

"We should not try to expand one woman's freedom at the expense of another's ... Tomorrow this freedom will be extended to primary and high school education and then to the civil service, and finally Turkey will have an Islamic way of life."