02 January 2010Now, for the first time, almost all universities across Turkey have abandoned the official prohibition on women wearing headscarves.The ban ended in a quiet and indirect way when the government issued a statement in September saying it would support any student expelled or disciplined for covering her head. This led the universities, one by one, to stop enforcing the ban.The headscarf ban did not originate with modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, although he did discourage women from covering their heads, and passed a law barring men from wearing traditional Ottoman clothing.The official ban on headscarves in universities and for public servants is more recent, dating back to regulations passed by government departments in the 1980s, after the last military coup.Then, the university ban was only properly enforced after the military forced out an overtly Islamic prime minister in 1998.A Human Rights Watch report released in 2004 concluded that the headscarf ban ultimately stifled academic freedom, forcing the resignation of female professors and preventing some women from attending universities at all. "The Turkish authorities say they want to protect women who choose not to wear the headscarf," said Rachel Denber of the HRW. "But bullying women out of higher education because of the way they choose to dress is a poor way to protect women’s freedoms."Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to overturn the university ban in 2008, through a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to education. It passed through parliament, but was thrown out by the Constitutional Court.But this year, with the momentum behind him after winning the constitutional referendum in September and more compliant bureaucrats in the Board of Education, the government in effect ended the ban by stealth.The Constitutional Court is in any case being restructured following the referendum, and is less likely to challenge the governing party so boldly in future.The main opposition party, the secular CHP - previously a strong supporter of the university ban - wanted to negotiate its end with the government, but was denied the chance. Now the party has vowed to maintain the ban on civil servants wearing headscarves."The reason why we don't allow a headscarf for, say a judge, is that it is a symbol of religion. The state should be impartial to race, religion, everything," says Hursit Gunes, a deputy secretary-general of the party.Headscarfed women say right now they are the ones who are disadvantaged.Fatma Benli is an experienced lawyer who specialises in defending women. But her headscarf bars her from appearing in court - she has to appoint bare-headed proxies to defend her clients."For 12 years I've been working long hours as a lawyer and I have specialist skills, in international law, so I should be well-paid," she says, "yet I still have to rely on financial help from my parents to run my office".Dilek Cindoglu, a sociologist at Bilkent University who does not wear a headscarf, has done research which shows that the restrictions on headscarfed women in the civil service have spilled over into the private sector."Once they get employment they are being discriminated against in terms of promotions, salaries, and in terms of dismissals should the company decide to reduce the workforce."
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