Election win could spell end of scarf ban

November 8, 2002

Turkey's ban on religious dress in universities could end after the victory of the Islamic-rooted AK party in last Sunday's general election.

Party leader Tayyip Erdogan said the ban "would be resolved". His two daughters, like thousands of students across the country, are barred from university because they wear a headscarf in accordance with their Muslim beliefs.

Supporters of the ban argued that religion must be kept out of education to protect Turkey's secular state. Kemal Guruz, head of Yok, Turkey's higher education authority, said: "It's not a question of exercising religious beliefs, it's a political statement that divides students and causes disruption and intimidation."

The AK party is keen to avoid a clash with the secular establishment. Turkey's first Islamic-led government was forced out of office by the secular army in 1997. The party has distanced itself from religion claiming it is a "conservative-right party", while its election campaign avoided commenting on the headscarf issue.

But for many party members it is a burning issue. "AK will open the university doors to us," said one supporter celebrating outside the party headquarters in Istanbul on election night.

AK party deputy leader Abdullah Gul said that Turkey was trying to enter the European Union. "It has to achieve the same basic democratic rights and freedoms. It is strange to ban something that is not banned in Paris, London and New York."

His wife, who is barred from studying, said reconciliation was needed "to relax Turkey to make it a peaceful country, by getting rid of this ban that doesn't fit to a modern Turkey".

But ending the ban might not be easy. Universities have a high degree of autonomy from government. Yok is appointed by the President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and enforces the ban. The president can overrule the government.

Yok's administrative council also has two members of the military, a legacy of the country's last military coup in 1980. Yok was created by the generals after the coup.

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