Headscarf ruling divides Turkey

STRASBOURG – Leyla Sahin has run out of options. In 1998, she was barred from attending Istanbul University medical school because her headscarf violated the official dress code. 

Last week, her legal challenge reached a dead end when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in Strasbourg, upheld Turkey’s ban on women wearing headscarves in universities, leaving her no more avenues for appeal.

However, the decision also pointed a growing divide between the Islamic-rooted government and the secular establishment. Pres. Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the ruling was "binding" and should spell the end of the controversy, but leaders of the conservative and Islamic-rooted government argued the decision was not binding and promised to press ahead with an effort to lift the ban. Although the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, it has had a secular system since the 1920s.

The ban on headscarves on campuses and in state offices has been enforced since 1986 by the military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular constitution. The issue is hotly debated across Europe. Some countries, such as France, ban the wearing of conspicuous religious apparel in schools, while others allow it. The court ruled that Turkey‘s notion of secularism was consistent with the values underpinning the European Convention on Human Rights.

Protect-Hijab, a group that campaigns for the rights of Muslim women to follow the Islamic dress code, criticized the decision, according to the Islamic News Agency. The UK-based group called the ruling “a disguise for governments to suppress the free practice of religion.”

Cem Ozdemir, an Alliance 90/Greens’ party European Parliament Member of Turkish origin, also criticized the ECHR verdict.” Banning the headscarf in this day and age will lead nowhere,” he told Zaman online, a Turkish Internet newspaper. “A consensus is needed in Turkey. Different social groups should come together and reach a consensus about respecting different ways of life including wearing a headscarf. Otherwise this will mean that democracy does not work for everybody in Turkey.”

The court said that it considered both the need to protect rights and freedoms and to maintain public order in a country where most of the population, while pursuing a secular way of life, adhere to the Islamic faith. "Imposing limitations on the freedom to wear the headscarf could, therefore, be regarded as meeting a pressing social need by seeking to achieve those two legitimate aims, especially since that religious symbol had taken on political significance in Turkey in recent years," the court said.