Turkey's Gul Signs Head Scarf Measure

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008

CAIRO, Feb. 22 -- Turkey's president signed into law Friday a constitutional amendment allowing women to wear head scarves on college campuses. The move eases a prohibition on religious attire that had been among the founding measures of the modern, secular Turkish republic.

President Abdullah Gul said in a statement that the change is also a step toward ensuring equal treatment under the law for all Turkish citizens and does not contradict the tenets of the almost nine-decade-old Turkish republic.

Parliament, dominated by Gul's Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, had approved the amendment Feb. 9.

Although more than 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk instituted laws and other measures in the 1920s to discourage Islamic attire as part of his drive for a more Western and secular Turkey.

Turkish women who cover their hair because of their Islamic beliefs say the restrictions have blocked generations of religiously conservative women from higher education. The government has promised to interpret the measure as allowing only head scarves tied beneath the chin -- a style Turks consider more traditional than Islamic.

Turkey's military sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk's secular principles. In the spring of 2007, generals objected to Gul becoming president in part because his wife wore a head scarf. Their objections forced early elections in the summer that saw Gul's party greatly increase its representation in parliament.

Friday's signing was overshadowed by Turkish ground operations against Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq. Such offensives have been pushed by Turkey's military and by a nationalist party whose alliance with Gul's party on the head scarf measure ensured its passage.

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