Court defies PM over headscarfs

May 13, 2005

The head of Turkey's Constitutional Court has dashed the hopes of thousands of Muslims that the ban on headscarves in universities will be lifted.

In a high-profile speech before Recep Erdogan, the Prime Minster, and other leading members of the ruling pro-Islamic AKP, Chief Justice Mustafa Bumin said: "A law cannot be passed that would allow women to wear headscarves in universities."

He said "the Constitutional Court would never allow headscarves to be worn in universities" while the European Court of Human Rights had ruled headscarves in universities a "political symbol".

The judiciary's tough line came as a blow to the AKP, which supports an end to the ban. But Mr Bumin warned: "It is easier for some groups to abuse religious sentiments to garner votes in Turkey than in Western countries.

That is why the political parties that tried to abuse the people's religious views were closed in the past."

Most members of the Government, including Mr Erdogan, belonged to pro-Islamic parties that were closed down in the 1990s. Both parties supported lifting the headscarf ban.

Eager to avoid a political crisis, the ruling AKP has tried to avoid direct confrontation with Turkey's secular establishment. At the same time, it faces intense pressure from grassroots supporters to lift the ban because many of their children have been excluded from university for wearing headscarves.

Despite the anger generated within the AKP, several university rectors have welcomed the speech, among them Ural Akbulut, rector of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, who described it as a "relief".

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