Muslims demand sartorial freedom

November 28, 1997

SOME OF Turkey's leading universities are refusing to admit women students who adopt the strict Islamic dress code.

Each day at Istanbul University, Islamic women students hold a silent protest outside the gates of the main campus in Beyazit Square. The students are being refused admission over a technicality in registration cards.

University administrators at some faculties have demanded that photographs on student registration and identity cards should be without a religious headscarf. The technicality enforced by the university is one of Turkey's laws that aim to protect the 74-year-old secular state. In recent years the laws have not be enforced in universities, until now. Similar decisions have been taken by other institutions, including Ankara's Hacateppe University, one of the largest in Turkey.

The result is that hundreds of students have been prevented from attending classes. One of the protesting students, who did not want to give her name, claimed that the decision was a deliberate policy to deny religious students an education. "How can they stop me from attending my university just because I cover myself. Is this some sort of bomb on my head? It is just my religion: we are a Muslim country and I am a Muslim and for this I am not allowed to attend."

Similar claims have resulted in a number of human rights organisations supporting the women's campaign. The Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People led a demonstration against the ban, claiming the decision was unconstitutional and denied students their fundamental right to education.

But Bulant Berkada, rector of Istanbul University, said that he was only following the law, which forbids the wearing of religious dress in state buildings. "This is the law. If the law is changed we will permit them but until then these students will not be permitted."

The decision has drawn criticism from university teaching staff. Assistant professor Turgut Tahanli condemned the policy. "It is an exaggeration by the authorities who are over-reacting to the situation. This is not only about religious freedom but also a right to education. It is wrong for the authorities to impose their views on others, but I have to say legally they are right - the regulations exist - so ultimately there should be a change in the regulations."

Several leading politicians, including a government minister, have attacked the decision. But there is little indication that the law will be changed. Professor Berkada says he will not back down. "These women students have become a symbol of fundamentalism. Their dress is a symbol, a uniform, which is being used by religious groups to undermine the education system."

The decision by several key universities to re-enforce the laws has drawn accusations that it is part of a wider policy against Islamic movements. After the collapse of the Islamic-led government earlier this year, a number of policies aimed at restricting the influence of religion in society have been introduced, particularly in education. Professor Berkada acknowledged that the present situation of "heightened activities of religious groups" was the reason behind his decision, although he conceded that he had no evidence other than his own observations.

Until the 1990s students wearing religious dress were banned from most universities under laws protecting secularism. The ban became the focus of a national campaign and led to the controlling body for universities giving institutions discretion to admit students. Most lifted the ban, although laws restricting religious dress remain. The decision by some major universities to re-enforce the ban indicates that it could be reintroduced throughout Turkey.

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