Headscarved Turkish women prepare for long struggle

ANKARA (Reuters) - Ayse Sekerci was set to go to university this year, free at last to wear her Muslim headscarf. Then the party that championed her cause landed in court, and covered women fear their campaign will be set back a generation.

Headscarved protesters attend a demonstration against the ban on wearing headscarves at university, in Ankara April 12, 2008. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey’s parliament, controlled by the AK Party, passed a constitutional change in February to allow students to wear headscarves at university. That riled a secularist establishment made up of judges, generals and university rectors, who see the scarf as a symbol of political Islam, in which the AK Party has its roots.

Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, but the republic was founded as a secular state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 from the crumbling Islam-based Ottoman Empire.

Last month, a prosecutor launched a case to close down the AK party for anti-secular activities. His indictment is packed with references to the headscarf, while a separate case filed at the same court challenges the headscarf reform itself.

The AK Party denies the charges and says the closure case is politically motivated.

Headscarf-wearing women say the outlook is grim, with many predicting the Constitional Court, a bastion of secularism which has ruled against the AK Party in the past, will do so again. If it does, commentators and activists say devout women face a long wait before any party tackles the headscarf issue anew.

Twenty-year-old Sekerci has already decided that rather than not study, she will wear a wig to cover her hair at university. But after graduating, she says she would prefer not to work than to do so without her headscarf.

“Everyone was hopeful. I thought I would be able to study in the way that my religion requires,” Sekerci, wearing a knee-length dress over jeans and a silky black scarf, told Reuters. “It really seemed that this time it would happen. But after the recent events, all my hope has been destroyed.”

The headscarf debate goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. The country is a young democracy struggling to balance the demands of an increasingly prosperous but pious population and a traditionally pro-Western elite which sees any sign of Islam in public life as a threat.

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The AK Party, which had long spoken of trying to lift the headscarf ban, finally pushed it through parliament after being re-elected last year with 47 percent of the vote. The change also had the backing of an opposition party.

Some fear that if an attempt even in such favorable conditions fails -- or leads to the party’s closure -- it will be years before anyone dares raise the issue again.

“I think if the AK Party is closed down, we will have 10 to 15 more years of struggle to normalize these issues,” said Neslihan Akbulut, who heads activist group AKDER and now plans to go abroad for her doctorate, as she did for her first degree.

“If the party is closed and a new party appears, of course they will be afraid of even talking about religious freedom ... Every 10 years we see the same picture,” said Akbulut, referring to a bloodless coup in 1997 when a government perceived as too Islamist was pushed from office by the army with public backing.

Thousands of women have not gone to university because of the ban, enforced strictly since 1997, or have studied abroad.

Merve Kavakci, thrown out of parliament in 1999 for trying to take her lawmaker’s oath wearing a headscarf, agreed the issue could fall off the agenda. She said any hope lies in early elections or in women launching their own aggressive campaigns.

“This may not be an easy, quiet or peaceful (campaign) ... I don’t want it to be a physical clash, but so long as we don’t really put everything we have on the line, this will not be solved,” said Kavakci, whose party, a predecessor of the AK Party, was closed down in 2001.

Some in Turkey are quite happy to see the secularist establishment reassert itself after five years of AK Party rule. At an anti-government rally in Ankara on Saturday, many said they would like to see the party closed down.

Splashed across the front page of liberal newspaper Milliyet this month was a photograph of young girls coming out of school wearing headscarves. It horrified the secularists and strengthened their suspicions that once the headscarf is allowed into universities, it will soon creep into schools.

“We support the closure case, we have to protect the system somehow, that’s what judges are for,” Nese Dogan, a 39-year-old teacher, said at Saturday’s demonstration. She said the government was trying to destroy the principles of the republic.

While the secularists were marching in Ankara, a smaller group protested in a nearby park for the 115th weekend running.

“The AK Party will be closed and the headscarf won’t be allowed ... but we will do whatever is necessary to win our rights, whether it takes 5 or 10 years,” said Esra Duru.

She hopes one day her 6-year-old daughter will be able to go to university wearing a headscarf. But she is saving up to send her abroad, just in case.

Editing by Paul de Bendern and Catherine Evans