Headscarf Ban at Turkish Universities Approved

Is it a violation of the right to freedom of religion and education if a student is expelled from university for wearing a headscarf? A panel of 17 European judges in Strasbourg feel it is not. Rob Turner reports

Two young women wearing a headscarf (photo: AP)
The European Court of Human Rights dismissed a final appeal by a Turkish woman who sued her government after being excluded from University for wearing a headscarf

​​The 10th of November has long been a symbolic day in Turkey and now it will take on extra meaning. The decision by the European Court that Leyla Sahin's rights to education and religion were not violated, comes on the anniversary of the death of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. Atatürk laid the foundations for a secular state where religion and society are strictly separated.

Yet Leyla Sahin is not the first high profile case to provoke discussion in Turkey. The wives of many cabinet ministers are not allowed to attend state functions as they too wear headscarves. The Islamic-conservative government has long pledged to lift the ban on headscarves and foreign minister Abdullah Gül could not hide his disappointment with the decision from Strasbourg.

"It is not honourable to work with and praise ban", Gül said. The day will come when together we will sweep the ban away. If Turkey is supposed to improve the rights for religious minorities, then we can't apply bans for the Muslim majority."

Growing distance between Europe and Turkey?

The decision may certainly raise tensions between Turkey and the EU. Baha Güngör, the head of Deutsche Welle's Turkish service fears that fundamentalists could use the decision to distance themselves from Europe.

"That could also be one of the symbols of the nationalistic circles saying, look we are not allowed to wear headscarves, so forget about the EU and lets go another way, let's be one of the leading countries of the Islamic world rather than the red rag to the Europeans."

Turkey has always combined being a predominantly Muslim country with being an integral part of the western world – as a member of NATO or as a long-standing associate member of the European Union. Now, Güngör hopes the headscarf won't be used as a symbol to prevent necessary reforms along the path toward full membership of the EU.

"The religious circles will now say, do we want to be European or do we want to be Muslim and let your daughter wear a headscarf, you have to choose, and this is very dangerous for the process of modernising Turkey."

Yet the ban on headscarves has been part of the constitution since the country's founding and is fiercely enforced by the military, the President, the civil service and secular opposition.

The deputy leader of the Social Democrats, Ali Topuz feels the Strasbourg court vindicates the Turkish constitution.

"Strasbourg has given the government a firm answer, as they have had shameless disregard for the principles of Atatürk", Topuz says. "I sincerely hope that the government takes heed of this judgement."

Although the decision of the court is final, the debate about headscarves in Turkey is a long way from over.

Rob Turner



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