Headdress becomes a Turkish election issue

January 22, 1999

The religious headscarves controversy that has dominated Turkish universities for months has spread to the formation of the new government.

Former prime minister and centre-right leader Tansu Ciller has called for a moderating of the year-long campaign against the wearing of religious dress in universities.

Ms Ciller's True Path Party's support is crucial for the survival of the new government. She demanded an end to the dismissal of academics and civil servants seen to be supportive of the wearing of religious headscarves. It has also been rumoured that she wanted the removal of the education minister, Hikmet Ulugbay.

Mr Ulugbay has been in the forefront of the crackdown on the ban on religious dress and has drawn the anger of opponents of the ban, in particular the powerful Islamic movement. Ms Ciller's demands have been widely seen as an attempt to secure the support of Islamic voters in the April general election. Prime minister Bulent Ecevit denied that such a demand had been made although Mr Ulugbay was moved to the ministry of finance.

Mr Ecevit warned against the ban on religious dress becoming an election issue. "No one should use the headscarf issue in their election material. The election should not be overshadowed by the headscarf or fundamentalism. Otherwise troublesome situations could arise," he said.

Mr Ecevit's comments followed a tough statement from the military, which demanded an intensification of what it called the battle against Islamic fundamentalism.

Turkey is Muslim but also strictly secular. Tough laws on the wearing of religious clothes in public buildings, including universities, date back to the formation of the republic. Concerns over the rise in support of political Islamic groups led to a crackdown on religious activities, in particular in universities.

Kemal Guruz, head of the Turkish universities' ruling authority YOK, said that nothing would be allowed to stop the enforcement of the ban on religious dress. Universities were accountable only to the president.

A YOK report last year claimed that 70 per cent of female students did not wear headscarves to universities, leaving 30 per cent who did. Mr Guruz said that the campaign would continue, including disciplinary action against academics under measures introduced late last year as part of the crackdown on religious dress. Sanctions include a lifetime ban from universities and the stripping of all academic qualifications.

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