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Turkish Government's War Against Hijab

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 29, 2000

ISTANBUL – Five months ago, a Turkish court sentenced 23-year-old Nuray Canan Bezirgan to six months in jail for "obstructing the education of others." Her crime: wearing a head scarf to her college final exams.

In the past two years, more than 25,000 women have been barred from Turkey's college campuses because they refused to remove the head scarves they wear as part of Muslim tradition, according to Turkish human rights groups. Hundreds of government employees have been fired, demoted or transferred for the same reason. And this school year, the government has extended the ban to Islamic religious schools, prompting some Muslim girls to drop out.

The modest head scarf has become the object of one of Turkey's most divisive struggles as the country seeks to join the European Union and the globalized economy. The conflict leaves the country straining to balance greater democratic freedoms with preserving a secular state in a region of expanding Islamic influence.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923 to secularize and modernize a land that had been hobbled, in his opinion, by its Islamic and Ottoman imperial heritage. In recent years, the still fiercely secularist government and military have drawn criticism from human rights groups for their methods of opposing the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism.

The government has prosecuted writers and journalists it says have espoused the spread of Islam. It has shut down an Islamic political party and is trying to ban its successor. Parliament is expected to revive a law twice vetoed by the president that would allow the government to fire civil servants suspected of having connections with Islamic or separatist political organizations.

Some of the most explosive fights have been waged on college campuses, where government regulations require students "to wear modern costumes and look modern." This month, university and high school classes opened with protests and demonstrations against administrations that barred women with head scarves.

"To ask people to choose between education and their faith is cruel," said Binnaz Toprak, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bosphorus University. "Here, two really basic rights clash with each other. People are left with a terrible choice."

Nur Sertel, deputy dean of state-run Istanbul University, which was the first to ban head scarves three years ago, defended the government. "The head scarf is not only a way of dressing, it has been used as a symbol of Islam, a flag of fundamentalism" and a political football for Islamic organizations, she said.

Turkey's National Security Council last week said education was a critical area in which to oppose the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Council members discussed cracking down on religious influence in Turkish schools, particularly Islamic institutions.

But human rights groups have condemned the government crackdown as a violation of freedom of personal and religious expression. "In Turkey the wearing of the head scarf by students or elected representatives has not presented a threat to public order, health or morality," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.

Two years ago, police dragged Nuray Canan Bezirgan and three other students from their classroom at Istanbul University a week before she was to graduate. She was barred from returning and, in May, was sentenced to six months in jail. On appeal, she was ordered to pay a small fine instead. Two other charges are pending against her for participating in illegal demonstrations, each carrying a prison term of up to three years, according to her attorney, Ibrahim Ozturk.

"Because I wear a head scarf, I can't finish my education," said Bezirgan.

The issue became so vitriolic in the opening days of school this year that government institutions began warring with each other.

"We have no right to ask people who think differently from us to disappear," Turkey's tourism minister, Erkan Mumcu, said in an address at Istanbul University, which has one of the country's largest and most economically diverse student bodies. University campuses, in particular, should encourage "freedom of thought and expression," he said.

The military – which has declared Islamic fundamentalism one of Turkey's greatest national security threats – said in a news release that it is "concerned with these statements, which can be interpreted as . . . leading Turkey to fanaticism. In contrast with Mumcu's statements, it is clear that if we are not careful about political Islam, it will lead Turkey to a new Dark Age."

Teachers and other government employees are also barred from wearing head scarves. Last year, a parliamentary deputy was forbidden to take her oath of office when she arrived at the Grand National Assembly wearing a head scarf.

Nezine Yildiz, 16, said she dropped out of high school this year and is taking U.S. correspondence courses via the Internet because the government decreed that students at her all-girls religious academy could not don head scarves when entering classes taught by men. Single-gender religious schools have been told to begin integrating their classrooms this year.

In grading national college entrance exams, the government puts graduates of religious schools and technical training schools at a disadvantage, compared with students from public high schools. That practice, plus the new restrictions on religious schools, has prompted a sharp decline in applications to Islamic academies, according to an association of religious high schools.

The government also has begun barring women from wearing head scarves in photographs for drivers licenses, passports and university enrollment documents. In an era of digital camera technology, some photography shops have found a booming business in digitally doctoring women's photographs with fake hair.

But officials have started to catch on. At three times the price of a normal passport photograph, digital hair has turned out to be only a short-term fix to a long-term issue.


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