Identity cards test dress code

September 11, 1998

Turkish students applying for university registration clashed with the authorities last week over a dress code that bans Islamic head scarves and beards.

Veiled women students registering at Istanbul University were turned away unless they produced an identity photo of themselves without their head gear.

Other students who complied with the photo demand were later refused registration after an interview. One student complained that her interviewer asked her to remove her veil. When she refused, she was not admitted.

Prospective students had received a booklet informing them of the dress requirements. They were also warned from getting involved in radical groups. Measures were introduced at the end of the last academic year that allow university authorities to discipline students for activities outside campus, including involvement in political demonstrations.

The clampdown on religious dress is part of Turkey's historic transition from a Moslem to a secular state. The laws date back to the 1920s when religious dress in public building was outlawed.

The clothes code will be an election issue for the post of vice-chancellor at 20 universities to be decided in November. Newspapers are claiming they will have to back the code to get chosen. Most YOK board members are committed to the ban.

Kemal Guruz, director of the universities' authority, YOK, said: "This is pure fiction, the decision on the selection is done by secret ballot at the discretion of individual members."

Six candidates from each university are elected by secret ballot by fellow academics. The six candidates are cut down to three by the ruling executive board of YOK, with the final decision resting with the president.

The Turkish army, which has both direct and indirect influence on the decision, is expected to play crucial role on the final selections.

The military sees itself as guardian of the secular state and is the main driving force behind the banning of religious dress in universities as part of a general crackdown on Islamic activities.

Turkey's 1982 constitution, introduced after the military coup in 1980, gave the army representation and voting rights on the YOK board. The army is still influential. Military pressure led to the country's first Islamic-led government quitting office last year.

New chief-of-staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu has re-affirmed the army's commitment to the dress crackdown claiming that radical Islam is the greatest threat facing Turkey. The headscarf ban, which affects women who cover their heads in compliance with Muslim tradition, is now the focus of the ongoing struggle between the secular and Islamic communities.

The reintroduction of the ban on religious dress at universities earlier this year provoked mass demonstrations, some violent, by Islamic students. Numerous students were subsequently banned from college, resulting in some failing their final examinations.

The country's largest political party, the Islamic Virtue Party, has already vowed to support religious students, claiming it will make it a main issue in elections next year. Meanwhile, YOK appears equally determined to give no quarter.

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