Head scarves issues in Turkey election

( AP ) - A general election on Sunday in this mostly Muslim nation might help answer a divisive question: whether women should be allowed to wear head scarves in official settings and state institutions.

It was a tempest over a head scarf that helped trigger the elections in the first place. Secularists reacted with outrage when the Islamic-oriented ruling party proposed a presidential candidate whose wife covered her head.

The opposition boycotted the presidential vote in Parliament and secularists held massive rallies in several cities to protest the nomination of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

A key element of the opposition's position was that it would be a disgrace for a headscarf-clad first lady to live in the mansion once occupied by Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - who established the modern secular state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The government was eventually forced to withdraw Gul's candidacy and called the July elections.

The ban imposed on Islamic-style headscarf is a long running problem that has increasingly dominated the agenda here, in parallel to the rise of the country's political Islamic movement.

In 1999, Huda Kaya and her two daughters were accused in court of "attempting to forcefully dissolve the Turkish Republic," a charge carrying a possible death sentence at the time.

Their alleged crime? Like thousands of others, they had participated in a rally against a government ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in universities.

Turkish society has changed dramatically in the time since Kaya's trial. But efforts by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end restrictions on the Islamic headscarf still meet with deep resistance from the military-backed, secular establishment. Surveys indicate that the ruling party is likely to retain its majority, though by a weaker margin.

Kaya, a 47-year-old widow and mother of four, now runs a non-governmental organization in an old neighborhood of Istanbul with her daughters, who spent seven months in prison her after their convictions in 1999. Among Kaya's daily routines are raising funds for victims of disasters around the world, and keeping up her campaign to lift headscarf bans.

"We believe in our right to observe our religion and to live in a humane way," she said.

For Kaya and her daughters, restrictions on the wearing of Islamic headscarves represent an attack on freedom of religion. Yet for Turks who feel their secular lifestyle is at stake, the headscarf symbolizes a distant past, a time when the Ottoman Empire was struggling to survive by instituting limited reforms even as it clung to conservative ways in a rapidly evolving world.

The wearing of headscarves was first banned in universities shortly after a 1980 military coup carried out by officers who viewed Islamists as a serious threat. But the implementation of that rule varied during the law's early years.

In 1997, a coalition government run by an Islamist party was ousted after a conflict with staunchly secular institutions, including the military, that feared Turkey's leaders were undermining secular principles enshrined in the constitution.

At that time, entering a university campus with an Islamic headscarf was prohibited. Another law forbade "covered" women from working in government offices.

Since then, the headscarf issue has been a fault line in Turkish politics, dividing voters into pro-ban and anti-ban camps.

"I don't want to see girls with headscarves in universities. If a party said it would allow it, I wouldn't vote for them. That's why I'm voting for CHP," said Cicek Isiksel, a 23-year-old university graduate who lives in an upscale district in Istanbul.

Isiksel, who wore jeans and a green tank-top as she sat in a downtown coffee shop, said she would vote for the main opposition party, a secular group, because she feared the influence of religion on politics would grow under the current ruling party.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in Turkey's Islamist movement, hasn't pressed to end headscarf restrictions during its term despite its two-thirds majority in the Parliament since 2002.

During a recent, televised interview, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his party will focus on the issue if it returns to power. He also added there needs to be "institutional consensus," to defuse the conflict over the attire.

The Republican party says in its platform statement that Turkey has to "win the battle against the medieval mentality that tries to cover women's body."

Kaya's daughters, who will vote for the ruling party, said they took to the streets back in 1999 because they were denied access to university exams on the grounds that their hair was covered in portrait photos they attached to exam application forms.

"People always found a way to live together in the history," Kaya said. "I'm sure this ban will end some day."

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