Dress code under fire

March 6, 1998

Thousands of Turkish students have demonstrated against restrictions on Islamic dress enforced by Istanbul University.

Protests continued this week despite a climbdown by Kemal Alemdaroglu, the university's rector, who agreed to lift the ban for the rest of the academic year.

Professor Alemdaroglu angered Islamic students last month when he announced that the university would enforce an existing ban on all religious dress. The ban specifically targets women who cover their heads with a scarf in Muslim tradition. The restrictions have also been applied to men who, it is deemed, wear beards for religious reasons.

Turkey is constitutionally a secular state, and it forbids religious dress in education institutions. In the past few years, however, the restrictions were rarely enforced.

At a press conference on Monday, Professor Alemdaroglu explained his decision to lift the ban. "The restrictions are necessary to protect the secular state, and I am following the laws of the country. But for the sake of peace they will be temporarily lifted."

The decision, however, did little to defuse the students' anger, and the ban has become a focal point of growing unrest among many Islamists, who are now demanding that all restrictions be ended permanently.

In the past few months there has been a clampdown on Islamic activity with the strong backing of the military. The largest political party, the Islamic Welfare Party, was formally closed last month. However, the protests against dress restrictions have split the coalition government, and the temporary suspension of the ban is apparently due to pressure from the prime minister, Messut Yilmaz.

The "head scarf crisis" was raised at the monthly meeting of the government and the army. Mr Yilmaz is reportedly under increasing pressure from the military to crack down on Islamic activity.

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