ANKARA – Turkey on Monday announced it will lift a ban on women wearing headscarves in most public offices, following other measures critics say are aimed at the Islamization of the staunchly secular country.
In a major speech to introduce political reforms, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that, with a few exceptions, public servants will be allowed to wear headscarves after a long-standing ban is overturned. However, the ban will remain in effect for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel, he added.
The lifting of the ban was part of major political reforms announced by Erdogan to enhance the rights of minority groups, including Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
The headscarf controversy reveals the rivalry in Turkey between religious conservatives, who form the bulk of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), and secular opponents. Secularists, particularly those in the army, see the headscarf as a symbol of defiance against the strict separation of state and religion, a basic tenet of modern Turkey.
Erdogan’s government was hit by a wave of nationwide unrest in June that threw up the biggest challenge to his decade-plus rule. Protesters called Erdogan a “dictator,” accusing him of Islamization in the predominantly Muslim but firmly secular country.
Critics say Erdogan’s rule has left Turkish society more polarized than ever, with opponents of the AKP government openly voicing concerns that Turkey is sliding toward conservative Islam. In 2004, his party attempted to submit a controversial amendment on banning adultery but had to back down amid criticism from opposition parties and women’s groups.
More recently, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, the toughest such measures in the republic’s history.
Kurdish groups had also demanded that Erdogan go further on liberalizing restrictions on the use of their language, so that Kurdish children would have the right to education in their mother tongue. Erdogan’s proposal will allow private schools to have some classes in Kurdish.