Turks move to ease headscarf ban

Ankara, Turky - Turkey's parliament has approved a constitutional amendment that would ease the ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves in universities.

Headscarves were banned from campuses after pressure from the staunchly secularist military ousted a government seen as too Islamist in 1997.

Wednesday's vote was carried by 397 in favour to 113 against. Final approval is expected in a vote on Saturday.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party has a safe majority in the Turkish parliament.

Court threat

As Turkey's population is predominantly Muslim, two-thirds of all Turkish women cover their heads, meaning thousands miss out on the opportunity to attend college. Many Turks argue that is unfair.

The government wants to allow traditional scarves tied under the chin, although more enveloping versions would still be banned.

In Wednesday's heated debate, Bekir Bozdag, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said the amendment bill would strengthen Turkey's characteristic principle of secularism.

"Giving an equal right to education to every citizen is not against the state of law and democracy," he said.

"Isn't secularism the guarantee for everyone who wants to benefit from the equal right to education?"

But Hakki Suha Okay, a member of the strictly secular main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said the package "aims to render the principle of secularism ineffective".

"This step will encourage radical [Islamic] circles in Turkey, accelerate movement towards a state founded on religion, lead to further demands" against the spirit of the republic, he said.

The government's plan to change the law has sparked large protest rallies by secular Turks, who want to defend the legacy of the modern state's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

They fear it may be a first step to eroding the secular system.

With the backing of a nationalist opposition party, the government has enough votes to change the constitution and relax the ban.

But if it does, the CHP has vowed to challenge the amendment in the constitutional court.

The problem, says the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Istanbul, is that the leaders of the current government once espoused political Islam and Turkey's powerful secular establishment does not trust them.

They fear that lifting the headscarf ban is just the first of many steps to bring Islam into public life, slowly changing the face of modern Turkey and putting pressure on those who do not cover up to do so, our correspondent says.