Turks enforce head-dress law

June 26, 1998

Women students who cover their heads in conformity with Muslim religion have been barred from their end-of-year exams at Istanbul University.

Security guards attempted forcibly to remove the students' scarves, resulting in a series of scuffles. According to students, several women collapsed and had to receive medical attention. The action led to protests this week that were broken up by police using armoured cars and CS gas.

Turkey's strictly secular society forbids the wearing of religious dress in state-owned buildings, but the laws have rarely been enforced in the universities. However, Istanbul's rector re-introduced the ban earlier this year and the controversy has now become a battle of wills between supporters of the secular state and the powerful Islamic community.

Following large demonstrations and growing tension, the rector announced a compromise where- by the ban would only be enforced at the beginning of the next academic year. But just as students attended their end-of-year exams, he re-introduced it.

Earlier this month, thousands of students protested outside the main campus in Beyazit Square, which has been a focal point of numerous demonstrations. Baton-wielding police with dogs attacked the protesters while armoured cars stood by. There were more than 20 injuries and numerous arrests. The change in tactics is seen as an increasingly tough stance taken by the state towards the students.

The university authorities have also started to exercise new powers to clamp down on student protesters. Eighteen who were about to take their finals were told they were expelled for taking part in protests.

YOK, the ruling university authority, has given universities the right to expel any student taking part in protests, including those off university premises.

This week 2,000 Istanbul students marched from the city to Ankara, about 200 miles away, joined by 20,000 other marchers. Security was said to be tight in the capital as the marchers arrived on Wednesday.

The army, which sees itself as the guardian of the secular state, has become increasingly impatient with the lack of progress on the clampdown on Islamic activities, and one area of concern is the controversy over headscarves.

Generals have called for the laws on religious dress by students to be strictly enforced.

Some students are trying to avoid the ban by wearing nylon wigs on top of their headscarves. A wig seller in Istanbul has claimed record sales from customers, he claims.

The ban on religious dress will extend to all universities from the beginning of the next academic year.

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