Turkey to lift headscarf ban amid mass protest

Turkish lawmakers were set to lift a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities on Saturday, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the move as a threat to secularism.

In separate votes, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers approved two constitutional amendments that would together lift the on-campus ban, clearing the way for the entire package to be adopted in a final vote later on Saturday.

The reform was tabled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the grounds that the headscarf ban—imposed after the 1980 military coup—is a violation of the freedom of conscience and the right to education.

It has won the backing of the opposition Nationalist Action Party, and between them, the two parties have 410 seats in the 550-seat house, more than the 367 votes needed to amend the constitution.

In separate votes on the two constitutional amendments, 403 lawmakers cast “yes” ballots, Parliament speaker Koksal Toptan said.

The amendments change the Constitution to read that the state will treat everyone equally when it provides services such as university courses and no one can be barred from education for reasons not clearly laid down by law.

Parliament will now vote on the entire package. In a first-round vote on Thursday, the package garnered 404 “yes” votes.

Secularists—among them the army, the judiciary and academics—say lifting the ban will undermine the strict separation of state and religion in the mainly Muslim country, a basic tenet of the 84-year-old republic.

As lawmakers cast their ballots, tens of thousands of people carrying Turkish flags and pictures of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, gathered in downtown Ankara for a mass protest against the reforms.

“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” shouted the protestors.

A police officer at the rally, which was called by more than 70 trade unions and NGOs, estimated that the crowd was less than 100 000 people.

A similar demonstration drew more than 125 000 people last weekend.

Once adopted in Parliament, the amendments will need the approval of President Abdullah Gul, a former AKP member who has yet to veto any law put forward by the government.

The strictly secular main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has threatened to challenge the reform at the Constitutional Court for falling foul of the principle of secularism, in a move that could lead to a long and messy fight.

The secular camp says easing the restriction on headscarves in universities will put pressure on women to cover up and pave the way for the lifting of a similar ban in high schools and government offices, thus eroding secularism and ushering in religious rule.

Leading academics have warned that lifting the ban on headscarves would lead to clashes on campuses and a boycott of classes by some female academics.

The AKP, largely distrusted by secularists for its roots in a banned Islamist party, rejects charges that it is trying to undermine secularism.

Some analysts, including those who favour lifting the headscarf ban, have criticised the amendments as hastily prepared and the government of insincerity for focusing on an explosive problem rather than drawing up a plan to remove all obstacles to women’s education.—Reuters

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