The Turkish government’s heavy-handed interference in universities, coupled with a strict ban on headscarves for students and teachers, inhibits academic freedom, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. The European Court of Human Rights is scheduled today to rule on two Turkish cases concerning women excluded from higher education for wearing the headscarf.

The 46-page report analyses the state-imposed ban on the wearing of the headscarf in Turkish universities. It also details the domineering role of the Higher Education Council (Yuksek Ogretim Kurulu, or YÖK), created by the military after the 1980 coup in Turkey.

Despite the welcome removal of the military’s nominee from the Council as part of constitutional changes in May, the military continues to express strong public views about education policy and oppose any threat to the Council’s firm hold over the university system.

“The Turkish government has still not dispelled the coercion and self-censorship that pervade academic life,” said Rachel Denber. “Professors continue to be disciplined for challenging state practices.”

The most recent example was the removal of Professor Şebnem Korur Fincanci from her post as head of Istanbul Unversity’s Forensic Medicine Department in April because she had made comments questioning the state Forensic Medicine Institute’s determination to combat torture.

The report examines the state-imposed headscarf ban that has excluded thousands of women from higher education. Hundreds of others have been suspended or discharged from teaching posts as a result.

Implementation of the ban has intensified since 1997 when the military delivered an ultimatum to the government of the day. Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party would like the government to lift the ban, but it dares not defy the military on this sensitive matter, which the military sees as a touchstone of modern Turkey’s secular identity.

The Human Rights Watch report looks at the historical, social and political context of the headscarf issue. The subject is of even greater contention in Turkey than elsewhere in Europe. Many of Turkey’s secularists believe that the religious parties plan to eliminate secularism bit by bit, and that the headscarf is the first step.

Human Rights Watch believes the headscarf prohibition is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. Moreover, the restriction of women’s dress is discriminatory and violates their right to education, their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and their right to privacy.

In the name of secularism, the Turkish government imposes the headscarf ban as a barrier to the perceived threat: the encroachment of Islam into the political field. In fact, the protection of religious freedom is fully 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.

Rather, protecting religious freedoms demonstrates the very respect for the diversity of religious conscience on which the secularism of public institutions is founded. Requiring or forbidding students to wear visible religious dress is a failure in the duty of the state 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, Human Rights Watch said. Furthermore, headscarves are not inherently dangerous or disruptive of order, and do not undermine educational functions.

“The Turkish authorities say they want to protect women who choose not to wear the headscarf," said Denber. "But bullying women out of higher education because of the way they choose to dress is a poor way to protect women’s freedoms.”

Human Rights Watch urged the government to lift the headscarf ban as part of a broader strategy for remedying shortcomings in the protection of women and improving their access to education and employment. A similar approach has been suggested by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Several Turkish students barred from university education for wearing the headscarf have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which is scheduled to rule on their cases today. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, the students allege that the ban breaches their rights to religious freedom, freedom of expression, right to privacy and that it is discriminatory. The trend in the court’s recent decisions has been to uphold governments’ right to restrict the wearing of the headscarf “in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The Human Rights Watch report questions the zero-sum assumption that the broadening of the rights and freedoms of devout Muslims would necessarily narrow those of non-Muslims and secularists. The report also highlights the efforts of groups working within Turkish society toward a genuinely pluralist approach to ensure that women are able to make their own free choice whether to wear the headscarf.