Turkey to relax headscarf ban in universities

Students may soon be allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in Turkish universities, a watershed for a devout, growing middle class that has long complained of discrimination against its faith.

Turkey’s popular Islamist-rooted government and a nationalist opposition party agreed on a compromise this week to lift a 1989 ban on female students wearing the headscarf in higher education, a move unthinkable only a few years ago.

The amendment is expected to be approved by parliament early this month.

As recently as 1997, Turkey’s army generals, acting with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist.

“Lifting the headscarf ban in universities is a big step for Turkey, even if the reform is insufficient. It will mean a lot of women who suffered from the ban will be able to study again,” said Neslihan Akbulut of women’s rights group AKDER.

Turkey’s secular establishment, which includes generals, judges and university rectors, sees the headscarf as a symbol of radical Islam and a political challenge to the Nato member’s separation of state and religion. Turkey is 99 per cent Muslim.

The Turkish republic was founded as a secular state by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 from the crumbling Islam-based Ottoman Empire.

Thousands of women have in the past two decades chosen not to go to university because of the ban, have studied abroad or have been expelled from their studies for wearing a garment that covers their hair as a sign of piety.

The headscarf debate goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. It is a young democracy that is struggling to balance the demands of an increasingly prosperous but pious Muslim population and a traditional urban pro-Western elite that sees Islam as backward and a threat to the status quo.

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