Much to the consternation of the Turkish authorities the battle waged by Islamist women for the right to wear the headscarf is escalating.
Outside Istanbul's historic Cerrahpasa medical school last month, a whiff of tear gas still lingered in the air, along with the abandoned placards and scattered leaflets strewn across the normally quiet campus. That was all that remained of a protest by 50 female medical students and over 1,000 of their Islamist supporters after a police baton charge cleared away their demonstration. Yet protests like these have been occurring across Turkey's universities and colleges for several months now and have become the focus for the long-running battle between the country's fiercely secularist Establishment and its Islamist opposition.
The cause of the demonstrations goes back to modern Turkey's founder, Attaturk, who introduced a dress code for the nation's institutions back in 1925. As part of his Westernisation drive, Attaturk banned the ubiquitous fez and also forbade women from wearing headscarves in educational institutions and government offices. At the same time he moved against Islamic orders, closing the country's mirriad tarrikats -- or religious lodges.
Many of these have since reopened, or carry on unofficially, and although the fez has disappeared -- except from the tourist bazaars -- the headscarf had begun to make inroads back into state institutions. This was due to a more relaxed attitude being taken towards it after the 1980 military coup, when the army sought to encourage religious observance as a counter to the left. Victories by the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in municipal and national elections in the 1990s also added to its re-acceptance. Since the landmark February 1997 meeting of Turkey's military-dominated National Security Council (MGK), and the army's declaration that the greatest danger facing Turkey is now Islamic fundamentalism, the headscarf issue has once again become a live one.
Last February university authorities moved to enforce the dress code once again -- not only against headscarves, but also against men wearing "Islamic-style beards" or turbans.
The result was an eruption of protest. Demonstrations occurred on many campuses, students wearing the proscribed clothing were locked out of classes and divisions on the issue began to appear, both within the ruling coalition government and within the main coalition party, Motherland (ANAP). The university authorities...