Turkey yesterday lifted a ban prohibiting women from wearing Islamic head scarves in state institutions, ending a decades-old restriction as part of a package of reforms meant to bolster democracy.
The ban, whose roots date back almost 90 years to the early days of the Turkish Republic, has kept many women from joining the public work force, but secularists see its abolition as evidence of the government pushing an Islamic agenda.
The new rules, which will not apply to the judiciary or the military, were published in the Official Gazette and take immediate effect in the Muslim-majority, but constitutionally secular, nation.
“A regulation that formally intervened in freedom of clothing and lifestyle — a source of inequality, discrimination and injustice among our people — has become history,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter.
The debate around the head scarf goes to the heart of tensions between religious and secular elites, a major fault line in Turkish public life.
Critics of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan see his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party as seeking to erode the secular roots of the republic founded on the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
Erdogan’s supporters, particularly in the country’s conservative Anatolian heartlands, say he is simply redressing the balance and restoring freedom of religious expression to a Muslim majority.
The lifting of the ban, based on a Cabinet decree from 1925 when Ataturk introduced a series of clothing reforms meant to banish overt symbols of religious affiliation for civil servants, is part of a “democratization package” unveiled by Erdogan last week.
The reform program — in large part aimed at bolstering the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish community — included changes to the electoral system, the broadening of language rights and permission for villages to use their original Kurdish names.
The mandatory recitation of the oath of national allegiance — a deeply nationalistic vow — at the start of each week in state primary schools was also scrapped yesterday.