02/09/2008, 00.00
TURKEY
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The Islamic headscarf passes, as a "right to study"

by Mavi Zambak
The constitutional amendment in defence of the "right to education" has been passed. Statistics - possibly manipulated - show that many young women leave the country to be able to study and wear the headscarf. The newspapers denounce the Islamisation of the country.

Ankara (AsiaNews) - The Turkish parliament has finished the second round of voting on the amendment that will permit women to wear the headscarf in the state universities: 403 votes in favour, 107 votes against.  Since the first electoral campaign in 2002, prime minister Erdogan has made overturning the ban one of his priorities, considering it one of the first steps toward an increasing departure from the secular principles that inspired the republic founded by Kemal Atataturk.  Now, with solid support from the general public and the parliament, in agreement with the president of the republic and the head of the nationalist party, the prime minister has shrewdly re-proposed his new draft law.

Given the negative reaction shown by politicians, university rectors, and common people when he sought to justify the headscarf as a religious symbol, he deftly leaped over the obstacle and won over minds by presenting the matter as an issue of human rights, of the right of each one to self-expression and to education.

The "right to study" and the "lies"

The most heated debates have centred on this very point: the right to wear the headscarf at the university.  This change is imagined to be a means of protecting the human rights of the large segment of the population who, because they are unable to cover their heads, do not attend university studies.  It is not by accident that the proposed constitutional change does not name the headscarf or the dress of the female students, but declares that "no one can be deprived of the exercise of his right to higher education for reasons not specified by law".

But not everyone intends to be "deceived by this game of phoney democracy".

With extreme clarity and courage, the newspaper Hurriyet seeks to unmask the "lies" used to manipulate emotions.  "They say that many 'poor' young women, because of the headscarf, are prohibited from going to school", writes Ertugrul Ozkok . "A study has been carried out on the reasons for their failure to participate in studies, and the result is that only 1.1% fail to attend because of the headscarf. 30 percent do not go because they have not passed the entrance exam; 14.6% have passed the exam, but then got married and quit their studies; 4% did not even attempt the exam and instead went to work; 9.8% don't like to study; and finally, but very importantly, 10.5% have not obtained permission from their families to continue their studies ".

The journalist for Hurriiyet then examines the objection that young women who want to wear the headscarf are forced to leave the country.  This, the article says, is an excuse plain and simple, and offends those who cannot leave the country because of economic reasons, or those who study inside the country without the headscarf, as if they were not "good Muslim women".

Ozkok recalls that Erdogan's daughters, in order to wear the headscarf freely, must do so in the American universities, not the Turkish ones . "Lucky for him", he says, that he is a man of power and is able to afford it.  And then, ironically, he asks: "Do you believe that with the permission of the headscarf those who are studying at Stanford or at Yale will come running back to their own country to continue their studies?".

In spite of this, like many other journalists and intellectuals, Ozkok maintains that the overturning of this ban will have positive results, but his strong suspicion is that the reasons why parliament is doing this are not entirely "transparent".

And this is what many of the female university students also think.  "We, too", some of them say, "maintain that all must be able to attend studies.  And we defend our peers who are not free to dress as they wish, while we are able to come to school in miniskirts and tight-fitting slacks, wearing makeup and sunglasses . . . if this is the case, they are welcome to sit among us in the universities with their heads covered.  But our fear is that this has now become a political and religious question with quite different underlying interests.  And so we do not accept that the politicians - all men, mind you - should exploit the freedom of our friends and peers for other nationalist and fundamentalist purposes".

This is the fear of the CHP, the People's Republican Party, which has announced that it will appeal to the constitutional court and which, during an extremely fiery parliamentary debate that erupted into a brawl, accused the Erdogan government of planning to introduce the free use of the "turban" everywhere in a short time, and therefore to Islamise the country.  Again today, before the start of the vote, the highest representatives of the Republican party in parliament called for the use of good sense during the voting, so that everything that had been safeguarded during the 85 years of the Turkish republic in the areas of secularism and democracy should not be destroyed.

The future: secularism or Islamisation

Now the amendment has passed.  Definitive approval depends on President Gul, but it is well known that this is nothing more than a formality.

The secular population has not had much opportunity to speak.  This segment mobilized on February 2nd, with a huge demonstration at the mausoleum of Ataturk in Ankara, and today fruitlessly repeated the protest in this place, which is so symbolic for the secularists.

Military leaders are on alert: staunch defenders of state secularism, last April they issued a stern warning against any attempt to Islamise society and the national institutions themselves.  But then they fell silent.  Will they consent to this new change in the history of the Turkish republic, in the most secular of the majority Muslim countries?

But the problems do not end here.  What is at stake is much more than a simple headscarf, coloured or not, which is worn - according to some questionable statistics - by 80 percent of Turkish women.

Now, something new in Turkish history, even the newspapers are freely criticizing the increasing Islamisation of the country.  Months ago, they decried the scandal of the publication of the Turkish translation of the adventures of Heidi, the little girl of the Alps, in which both she and the other characters wear the headscarf and long dress "so dear to the more observant Muslims".  "With this correction", a commentary in Hurrieyt read, "it is suggested to children that in the world there is no other way of living than the one indicated by Islamism".  It is increasingly evident that what is at stake in Turkey is the manner of understanding freedom, democracy, secularism, religion, the private and the public.

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