By Hidir Goktas and Gareth Jones
Sat Feb 9, 8:49 AM ET
Turkey’s parliament voted on Saturday to lift a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university, a landmark decision that some Turks say will undermine the foundations of the secular state.
Parliament, where the ruling centre-right AK Party has a big majority, approved the constitutional amendments by 411 votes to 103.
“The proposal to change the constitution has been approved. I hope this will be for the best for Turkey and hope it is done in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation,” parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan told lawmakers after the vote.
But underlining the powerful emotions the headscarf evokes, tens of thousands of people waving Turkish flags and chanting secularist slogans staged a protest rally against the changes just a few kilometers from the parliament in central Ankara.
The headscarf issue cuts to the heart of Muslim but secular, Western-oriented Turkey’s complex identity.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, which has Islamist roots, says the headscarf ban is an unfair denial of individual rights and religious liberty in a European Union candidate country where two thirds of women cover their heads.
Erdogan’s own wife and daughters wear the headscarf as do those of President Abdullah Gul and many AK Party ministers.
But Turkey’s old secular elite, which includes the judiciary, university rectors and army generals, regards the headscarf ban as crucial for maintaining a strict separation of state and religion.
FEARS OF ISLAMIC STATE
Crucially, the government had the support on Saturday of a key nationalist party, the MHP, to push through the reforms. [more] Opinion polls show a majority of Turks back an easing of the ban. Even after the reforms, women professors as well as civil servants will still be prohibited from wearing the headscarf.