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Headscarf Debate

DW staff (jen)February 7, 2008

The Turkish parliament early on Thursday morning approved changing the constitution in the first-stage of a two-round vote to lift a ban on wearing Islamic headscarves at universities.

Turkish women in Germany wearing headscarves
Will university students soon be allowed to wear headscarves in Turkey?Image: AP

After a sometimes raucous debate lasting more than 12 hours, 404 deputies in the 550-seat parliament voted in favor of an overall motion changing two articles of the constitution. The parliament had earlier voted on individual points of the proposed changes.

With all of the changes expected to pass, the parliament will convene again on Saturday for a final round of voting on the measures.

The move to allow the Islamic head-coverings comes after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) was returned to power last year in early elections forced following a series of spats with secularists over the nomination of Abdullah Gul -- whose wife wears a headscarf -- for the presidency.

Meanwhile, some 200 demonstrators had gathered near the parliament building to protest the plan. The headscarf ban, which the AKP party aims to rescind, is hot political topic in the country.

Some liberal Turks consider wearing a headscarf to be a voice in favor of an Islamic state.

Women's-rights issue, or Islamification?

Picture of demonstration on Feb. 2, 2008 against lifting headscarf ban
More than 125,000 demonstrated against lifiting the banImage: AP

The government has argued that the changes are a women's-rights issue. However, opponents, including army generals, judges and university rectors, said they see the move as part of a creeping Islamification of Turkish society and that Erdogan's government ultimately seeks to impose Shariah law.

The government also points to public-opinion polls -- the latest from Metropoll Research showed 65 per cent of Turks support lifting the bans -- as evidence that the moves are democratic.

Establishment groups such as the judiciary, top business groups and academics have all condemned the plan to lift the restrictions. The staunchly-secularist military has refused to get involved in the debate but has made it clear they are watching events carefully.

Wearing of the headscarf in universities was first banned after the 1980 military coup but it was not until the late 1990s that the ban was strictly enforced.

Demonstrators oppose the measure

Rather than take off their head coverings many devout Islamic women have refused to go to university and some, including Erdogan's daughters, have studied abroad to get around the ban.

Women shop in Istanbul, with heads covered
Shoppers, not students, wear headscarves in IstanbulImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

The move to allow the head-covering comes after Erdogan's AKP was returned to power last year in early elections that were forced following a series of spats with secularists over the nomination of Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, for the presidency.

The demonstrators who met near the parliament building yelled slogans like, "Down with the AKP" and "We won't allow headscarves."

On Saturday, Feb. 2, more than 125,000 people, mostly women, had demonstrated against the end of the headscarf ban.