Background Briefing

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Turkey’s public universities are still emerging from more than twenty years of military influence and centralized ideological and operational controls. Academic freedom in Turkey reached a low point shortly after the 1980 military coup, when the junta expelled hundreds of staff and thousands of students for their political activities and enacted a new education law imposing firm political prescriptions on Turkey’s higher education system. Although reforms, some as recent as May 2004, have improved campus life in important respects, many of the constraints remain in place.

With additional reform legislation now pending, there is an opportunity for Turkey to clear away the legacy of control and establish academic freedom on a more secure footing. This report summarizes the continuing barriers and provides suggestions on what should be done to remove them.

The discussion that follows is divided into two parts. The first part discusses the critical issue of institutional autonomy and the constraints placed on Turkish public universities by law and by the actions of the powerful state-controlled Higher Education Council (HEC/YÖK), a body given broad power to shape campus policies nationwide. The second part provides a detailed account of the controversy surrounding access to universities for women who choose to wear headscarves for religious reasons, and of the complex and often delicate relationship between religion and secular state institutions implicated in the controversy. Following a military directive, the HEC in 1997 banned the headscarf from Turkey’s public campuses.

Institutional Autonomy

The 1980 military coup in Turkey had a profound impact on the country’s higher education system. The military junta purged the universities of those it considered politically unacceptable, and then established the Higher Education Council as its watchdog to ensure that higher education operated along the lines it believed proper.

In November 1981, the junta enacted Law 2547 on Higher Education. This law expressly imposed ideological controls on Turkish higher education, stating that “[t]he aims of higher education” include “educat[ing] students so that they … will be loyal to Atatürkist nationalism and to Atatürk’s reforms and principles.” It also established the HEC, conferring on it broad powers to intervene in campus life and granting the HEC effective immunity from court challenge. This law was reinforced by the junta in provisions of the 1982 constitution, still in effect in Turkey today.

The HEC exercises central control over the university system and violates international human rights law and standards on academic freedom. It restricts the liberty of professors to write, teach, and take an active role within society, and limits the autonomy of universities in their staffing, teaching, and research policies and practice.

In May 2004, constitutional changes finally removed military representation from the HEC, but the Turkish military has continued to use its considerable political clout to influence education policy. The military seems particularly concerned to protect its own creation, the HEC.

The HEC’s mission to sustain a particular ideological view of the Turkish nation and its readiness to use its extensive powers to discipline individuals and institutions that step out of line have had a chilling and stifling effect on the university system. The threat of disciplinary measures that can result in the curtailment of an academic career or even the closing of a university for departure from an officially approved set of ideas has generated an atmosphere of self-censorship.

Recently, language policy became a flashpoint. Students’ requests for optional courses in minority languages—in particular Kurdish—rocked a number of universities in 2001 and 2002. The HEC orchestrated institutional resistance to the request, while universities responded with student exclusions and expulsions, and prosecutors directed arrests and prosecutions of those who had submitted petitions. The sanctions applied to students for making this demand have been lifted, but the idea of optional courses in minority languages is something that the HEC has indicated it will not even consider.

So long as the Turkish higher education system is subjected to far-reaching centralized control by a body largely appointed by government authorities with an ideologically prescriptive mandate, academic freedom will not flourish.

Headscarf Ban

The ban on the headscarf within universities excludes thousands of women from higher education each year. In accordance with a 1997 military ultimatum delivered to the government of the day, the HEC forbids any woman who wears the closefitting headscarf from studying or teaching in higher education. This restriction of women’s choice of dress is discriminatory and violates their right to education, their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and their right to privacy.

The headscarf ban is imposed in the name of secularism as a barrier to the perceived threat of encroachment of Islam into the political field. Yet protection of religious freedom is consistent with secularism in state institutions. Accommodating different forms of religious headgear does not suggest that state authorities endorse any particular religion and does not require additional state resources. In fact, protecting religious freedoms demonstrates the very respect for the diversity of religious conscience on which the secularism of public institutions is founded. Policies requiring or forbidding students to wear visible religious dress is a failure in the duty of states to avoid coercion in matters of religious conscience.

Headscarves do not pose a threat to public safety, health, order, or morals, and they do not impinge on the rights of others. They are not inherently dangerous or disruptive of order, and do not undermine the educational function.

A fairly widespread suspicion among Turkey’s secular population is that the religious parties have a plan to eliminate secularism by “salami tactics,” and that the headscarf is the first slice. They fear that tolerance shown on this issue will be followed by a ramping up of demands. Such fears have been aggravated by attacks directed specifically at people who have criticized the wearing of the headscarf at university.

Added to the uneasy relationship between Islam and the state in Turkey is the fact that many women are far from confident that the Turkish state is genuinely committed to protecting women from discrimination and abuse. This suspicion fuels concerns that the state would not protect secular women from abuse that might attend a lifting of the ban. 

Therefore, when this or any future government frames legislation or policy relating to the headscarf, Human Rights Watch believes that it would do well to acknowledge the long and sorry history of state failure to protect women from gender-based violence and discrimination, and commit itself to programs to remedy continuing shortcomings in that protection.

Any new legislation on higher education should also include provisions to offer reassurance to those who feel their rights could be put at risk by a change of policy with regard to the headscarf. Such provisions might be legislative or regulatory safeguards for the rights of women who choose not to wear the headscarf, as well as strong public endorsements of women’s freedom to dress according to their own free choice. But the most important gesture the government could make would be actively to seek out civil society groups representing women and gather their views through the broadest possible consultation.

A convincing consultation would give opponents of liberalization an opportunity to express their strong reservations and to suggest safeguards or undertakings that the government could make to protect society against the erosion of civil liberties—and in particular, women’s civil liberties—that the opponents fear would result from a lifting of the headscarf ban. By listening to the concerns of women from all sides of the argument, the government may be able to break away from the pessimistic zero-sum game and move toward a genuine pluralism that allows women to make their own free choice whether to wear the headscarf or not.

Such an approach, moreover, is the one most likely to succeed in Turkey today. It is quite possible that a broadly rights-based approach to changing the law could achieve wide acceptance—particularly at a time when civil society groups are reaching across traditional partisan divides to increase protection of individual rights through the rule of law.

Developments in May 2004

On May 7, 2004 the Turkish Parliament passed a constitutional reform law1 which included a measure to remove military representation on the Higher Education Council.

On May 4, 2004 the Justice Ministry produced a draft higher education law which the Turkish parliament passed into law on May 13, 2004. The Law amending the Law on Higher Education and the Law on Higher Education Personnel2 offers a degree of potential autonomy for higher education institutions. On May 28, 2004 President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed four articles of the higher education law. His principle objection was that an adjustment to the points system for entry to universities would favor students at clerical training schools (imam-hatip liseleri) and was therefore in contravention of the constitutional principles of secularism and unity of education.3 If the government resubmits the law unchanged, the president may appeal to the Constitutional Court to have the articles struck out.

Neither the constitutional changes in Law 5170 nor the legislative amendments in Law 5171 provide conclusive and effective protection for the freedom of professors and students to teach and learn. True protection for academic freedom will require more fundamental reform.

On June 1, 2004 Human Rights Watch submitted the attached memorandum to the Turkish government.

[1] Law 5170.

[2] Law 5171

[3] Clerical training schools were originally founded to prepare students for training as religious prayer-leaders (imam) but were preferred by more devout sections of the population and during the 1980s and 1990s expanded until they were educating more than a hundred thousand male and female students, far exceeding the annual demand for prayer-leaders. Under current regulations it is extremely difficult for such students to qualify for admission to universities other than as members of theology faculties. The law proposed changes to the calculations that would relieve these difficulties for students at clerical training schools.

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