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21 May 2024

Headscarved students denied access to Turk campuses even after ban is lifted

By Agencies

Turkey has lifted a ban on students wearing Muslim headscarves but covered women are still marching on university gates demanding to be let in.

At Istanbul's Marmara University, a few hundred students in brightly coloured silky headscarves, trade union members and a handful of schoolgirls protested against university rectors who refused to let covered students into class.

The rectors, part of the secular elite, have said they will not allow covered students into university until a more detailed law on clothing requirements is passed.

Some headscarfed protesters twice marched towards the entrance, where security guards blocked their path. They pledged to challenge the rectors in court.

"The (rectors) want to go against the government but as a result they're going against all the students," Zeynep Arslan, a 21-year-old final year business student, told Reuters at the protest on the Asian side of Turkey's largest city.

Parliament, dominated by the religious-leaning AK Party, passed a constitutional amendment earlier this month to allow university students to wear the controversial headscarf. President Abdullah Gul signed it into law last Friday.

The staunchly secular main opposition party CHP challenged the reform in court on Wednesday.

Before Gul approved the reform, the government had urged students not to start wearing the scarf on campus before all necessary laws had been amended.

But the government-proposed head of the Higher Education Board - traditionally a secularist stronghold - has told rectors to enforce the constitutional change and since then the government has been quiet on the issue. Marmara and Istanbul University rectors declined to speak to Reuters this week.


The AK Party has been trying to lift the ban since it first came to power in 2002, but has faced resistance from the secularists, who say allowing headscarves in universities is the first step on the road to an Islamic state and fear all women will one day be forced to cover up.

The ban - which opponents say has stopped thousands of women studying - dates back to the late 1980s, but was only strictly enforced after the army generals, with broad public support, ousted a government it viewed as too Islamist in 1997.

"(The new reform) was passed with 411 votes in parliament, the president signed it, but the rectors don't accept it," said Nur Akdag, a 22-year-old international relations student.

"Are the rectors above the president?"

For some final year students the reform is a bittersweet victory after being forced to choose, as they see it, between their religion and an education for years.

Some women have spent their university careers in a wig to avoid showing their hair, with the more daring students balancing wigs on top of their headscarves.

"Every day when I put on my wig I feel miserable," said 21-year-old student Zehra Eren, who plans to study for an MBA outside Turkey, following a path many covered women who can afford to have taken.

"I can be free in the US or England."

A handful of uncovered women joined the demonstration at Marmara University, saying they wanted individual rights.

But others - their trendy dress and heavy make-up contrasting with their covered classmates' plainer look - rushed past.

"It's going to cause polarisation," said Dilek, a 24-year-old student who declined to give her last name. (Reuters)