Turkish PM wants scarf reform

Turkey's Prime Minister is calling for a controversial ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities to be overturned as part of wider constitutional reform.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks look set to reignite a fierce debate between the country's secular elite and devout Muslims.

"The right to higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears," Mr Erdogan said in an interview with the Financial Times.

"There is no such problem in Western societies but there is a problem in Turkey and I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve the problem."

The PM's Islamist-based AK Party won a new five-year mandate in July's elections, but many have accused him of wanting to boost the role of religion in Turkish society.

Social pressure

Secularists regard the headscarf as a symbolic threat to Turkey's separation of state and religion.

They also fear any lifting of the ban would put social pressure on uncovered women to start wearing the headscarf in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The AK Party says it is a question of freedom of expression, and notes that the garment was only banned from university campuses in 1982 after a military coup.

Mr Erdogan's government has pledged to replace Turkey's military-era constitution with a new charter that puts the focus on individual rights and freedoms.

Constitutional reform

The reforms are part of a plan to bring the country more into line with the European Union, which Ankara hopes to join.

"We want a constitution that is going to provide and protect a state that is a democratic, secular, social state of law," Mr Erdogan told the FT.

"This constitution is going to point Turkey in a certain direction and it is our duty to debate it and consult with people in the widest possible sense," he said.

The AK Party is currently debating a draft text drawn up by a team of legal experts but it is still said to be divided over how to broach the headscarf issue.

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