Headscarves ban imposed on Turkish Cyprus

May 4, 2001

Turkey's ban on headscarves has spread to universities in the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, where restrictions on religious dress by female students are being increasingly enforced.

Scores of students have stayed out of classes in protest. One said: "Covering my head is a personal choice. If I do not have the right to judge someone for what they wear, I should not be judged."

The Turkish Republic of Cyprus, which only Turkey recognises, has five universities with 20,000 students. It has been developing higher education as a means of generating income from overseas students.

Education is one of few areas outside international sanctions imposed since partition in 1974. The republic claims to be independent, but most of its institutions are under Turkish control. Yok, Turkey's higher education authority, accredits all universities and degrees from Turkish Cypriot universities. Turkish students, who account for half of the republic's total, are admitted through Yok's entrance exam.

Yok, which regards religious dress as a challenge to the secular state, is widely seen to be behind the ban. "The ban is a problem that has been brought from outside," said Senol Bektas of Nicosia's Near East University. "We have always been more tolerant of this situation."

Fears have been growing that religious students would try to beat the ban in Turkey by attending universities in the republic. Assistant professor Sule Lokmanoglu of the Eastern Mediterranean University said: "We do not want to be a dumping ground for religious students from Turkey."

The ban applies only to Turks and Cypriots. It exempts overseas students in an apparent attempt to protect the market for female students from Islamic countries.

The republic is traditionally more relaxed than Turkey over issues such as religion. Already, there seems to have been a compromise in at least one university. Mesut Ayan, rector of Lefke University, said: "Our students have complied with the order and removed their scarves. Some are wearing wigs to cover their heads in place of scarves. We consider that to be acceptable."

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