Lifting of Turkey's 90-year ban on Islamic veils in civil service sparks fears of unrest

Turkish leader's removal of 90-year-old rule prohibiting Islamic women's headscarves in civil service jobs sparks fear of further unrest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 4:19am


A Turkish government decree to end a 90-year-old ban on wearing Islamic headscarves and veils in civil service jobs is threatening to rekindle the secular versus religious showdown that ignited weeks of unrest in late spring.

The ban, imposed at the dawn of modern Turkey's statehood, was intended to separate religious practices from government operations.

It will remain in effect for police, judges, prosecutors and military personnel. But anyone interfering with what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan termed a woman's right to cover herself in public would face a prison term of up to three years.

Television yesterday showed female civil servants wearing headscarves to work for the first time since the early years of the Turkish republic.

Erdogan said the ruling removed an obstacle to employment for women who chose to veil themselves, according to conservative Islamic tradition.

But it is seen by critics as another attempt to reinstate the Islamic practices eradicated by Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1925 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan called the decades-long ban "a dark period" being brought to an end as part of a package of so-called democracy "enhancements".

Among other reforms are the right of private schools to teach in languages other than Turkish, the restoration of traditional Kurdish names for towns and villages and the scrapping of a nationalist oath that had been read in schoolrooms for decades.

The oath, ending in the declaration that "how happy is he who says 'I am a Turk'," was considered offensive by Kurds and other minorities in Turkey.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party removed the ban on headscarves and veils for college students in 2008.

The prime minister, thought to be preparing a run for president next year, praised the restoration of the right of women to cover their heads as "a step towards normalisation".

Most of Turkey's 81 million citizens are Muslims, but many embrace the constitutionally mandated secular nature of politics and government.

But in recent months, the parliament controlled by Erdogan's Islamist-dominated party has enacted new limits on where and when alcohol can be sold, a move those in the tourism industry fear could hurt their business.

Major cities were hit by angry demonstrations in late May and June, when Erdogan gave the go-ahead for the bulldozing of a central park in Istanbul to make way for a shopping mall and high-rise apartment complex.

While the headscarf ban has been abolished, women's attire remains a subject of debate.

On Monday, Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling party, criticised a female host of a television music contest for wearing a revealing blouse.

Soon after, Turkish media said she had been dismissed.

Additional reporting by The New York Times