Turkish parliament begins debate to lift headscarf bans

(dpa) - The Turkish parliament met on Saturday to discuss lifting a ban on the wearing of Islamic-style headscarves at universities with the government confident of winning a solid majority.

At a first round of voting held on Wednesday the two constitutional changes received overwhelming support with 404 deputies in the 550-seat parliament voting in favour.

With support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was confident that it could garner the 376 votes required in Saturday's final round for the changes to pass.

Deputies are not expected to vote on the measure until late Saturday night.

The government has argued that the changes are a women's rights issue but opponents fear that the moves are part of a creeping Islamification of Turkish society and that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ultimately seeks to impose sharia law.

The government also points to public opinion polls - the latest from Metropoll Research showed that 65 per cent of Turks support lifting the bans - as evidence that the moves are democratic.

Establishment groups such as the judiciary, top business groups and academics have all condemned the plan to lift the restrictions. The staunchly-secularist military has refused to get involved in the debate but has made it clear it is watching events carefully.

Last Saturday more than 100,000 people gathered at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic who entrenched secularism, to protest the lifting of the bans. Similar protests were scheduled for Saturday.

The opposition Republican People's Party has vowed to go to the Constitutional Court in an attempt to block the changes.

Wearing of the headscarf in universities was first banned after the 1980 military coup but it was not until the late 1990s that the ban was strictly enforced. Rather than take off their head-coverings many devout Islamic women have refused to go to university and some, including Erdogan's daughters, have studied abroad to get around the ban.

The move to allow the Islamic-style head-covering comes after Erdogan's AKP was returned to power last year in early elections that were forced following a series of spats with secularists over the nomination of Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, for the presidency.

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