Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 174

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted angrily to criticism from the country’s secular establishment regarding a proposal in the draft new constitution to lift the current ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves while attending university.

Members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently completed a weekend retreat to finalize the draft of a new constitution, which is expected to be put to a referendum early in 2008 (see EDM, September 17). However, they failed to reach agreement on an article that would forbid anyone being prevented from receiving a higher education on the basis of how they were dressed, preferring to leave the final decision up to Erdogan.

On September 19, Professor Erdogan Tezic, the head of the Council of Higher Education, which oversees university education, issued a statement warning the government that the courts both inside and outside Turkey had approved the headscarf ban. He cited the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which in November 2005 dismissed an appeal by a student called Leyla Sahin who in 1998 had been expelled from Istanbul University for refusing to remove her headscarf. The ECHR described the headscarf as a “powerful external symbol” and commented that it was necessary to bear in mind “the impact which wearing such a symbol, which is presented or perceived as a compulsory religious duty, may have on those who choose not to wear it.”

“The ban on the headscarf is the result of decisions by the courts and the ECHR,” said Tezic. “It cannot be amended by the constitution” (Hurriyet, Sabah, Zaman, Milliyet, September 20).

He was supported by Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief public prosecutor of the Turkish Supreme Court. “Modern countries acknowledge the supremacy of the rule of law,” he said. “Something which has been determined by the courts cannot be simply reversed by promulgating a new constitution” (Radikal, September 20).

The statements provoked an angry response from Erdogan, who argued that students in Western countries were not prevented from receiving a higher education simply on account of what they wore. He dismissed the protests by Tezic and Yalcinkaya, maintaining that responsibility for formulating a new constitution belonged solely to the elected parliament.

“Everyone should know their place,” he said (Radikal, Vatan, Hurriyet, September 20).

But there are concerns that, flushed with its landslide victory in the July 22 general election, the AKP may be overplaying its hand. There are less confrontational ways of easing the headscarf ban than including a woman’s right to cover her head in the constitution; such as gradually amending university regulations, relaxing their implementation in practice, or allowing headscarves at privately owned universities. Even if proponents of the headscarf ban are a numerical minority, they are nevertheless a substantial and very powerful one, not least because they include the rigorously secular Turkish military. The AKP also seems to have forgotten that on April 29, 2007, nearly one million people took to the streets of Istanbul to protest Abdullah Gul’s decision to stand for president, mainly because his wife wears a headscarf.

Although Gul was eventually elected on August 28, the tensions have not dissipated. Many secularists still fear that, with Gul in the presidential palace, the AKP will try to erode the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). On September 19, General Yasar Buyukanit, the Turkish chief of staff, issued a statement to commemorate Turkish Veterans’ Day in which he assured secularists of the military’s determination to preserve and protect Ataturk’s legacy (Anatolian Agency, September 19).

Earlier in the day, Gul had returned from an official visit to northern Cyprus, his first foreign trip since becoming president. Turkish protocol requires that he be greeted at Ankara airport with a state ceremony, attended by, among others, the commander of the Ankara garrison. However, as soon as he saw Gul’s wife emerging from the airplane alongside her husband, the commander of the Ankara garrison ostentatiously marched out of the ceremony on the grounds that the participation of a headscarfed woman was a violation of secularism.

Erdogan has dismissed such protests. “It is the people, not the military which makes decisions,” he said (Radikal, September 20).

However, such tensions are likely only to increase if the AKP pushes ahead with its plans to lift the headscarf ban in the new constitution. Even if it succeeds, the price – in terms of antagonizing the military and further deepening the already dangerous polarization in Turkish society – is likely to be high.