Turkey's Headscarf Ban Could Be Eased

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's ruling AK Party and opposition nationalists unveiled plans on Tuesday to ease a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities that try to address the worries of the country's secular elite.

Turkish secularists, who include army generals and judges, have long opposed any easing of the ban, saying it could harm the separation of state and religion. The issue sparked early polls last year after mass secular rallies and army warnings.

The leader of the nationalist MHP, whose support is needed to push through the reform, said the proposal would be sent to parliament on Tuesday, though it will take time to approve.

"Our sole goal is to end the injustice against our women students, we have no other aim. These changes are limited to higher education," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his religiously oriented AK Party in televised remarks.

Erdogan, who once served a short jail sentence for reading a poem deemed too Islamist and whose wife and daughters all wear the headscarf, has to tread warily for fear of provoking a tough reaction from the army generals.

The staunchly secular army, with public backing, ousted a government it saw as too Islamist as recently as 1997.

The new proposal would only lift the ban for women who tie the headscarf under their chin in the traditional Turkish way. The increasingly popular wrap-around version, seen as a symbol of political Islam, will continue to be banned on campuses.

Burqas -- which cover the whole body -- and other forms of Islamic dress will remain banned. University teachers and civil servants will continue to be barred from covering their heads.

"Under our plan, the [woman's] face must remain open and so a person will not be permitted to conceal her identity," MHP leader Devlet Bahceli told his party in televised remarks.

Financial markets are closely watching the debate, fearful of revived tensions in the European Union candidate nation between the Islamist-rooted AK Party and the secular elite.

Underlining the acute sensitivity of the headscarf issue, the AK Party began a probe Monday into one of its deputies who said the eventual goal was to lift the ban entirely. The lawmaker could face party disciplinary proceedings.

"We know there are people who are trying to provoke this process, but I believe we will all act with a view to strengthening social harmony," said Erdogan, who is under strong AK Party grassroots pressure to reform the law.

"Turkish politics has suffered a great deal because of rigid [secularist] prejudices," he added to strong applause from headscarved women in the gallery listening to his address.

Members of Turkey's judiciary and university rectors have already criticized the headscarf moves as unconstitutional and damaging to "social peace." But the army, which sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of the secular order, has stayed quiet.