Banning students from entering university grounds wearing headscarves is a relatively new phenomenon. Until 1998, albeit with short-lived periods of restriction, girls could attend a Turkish university wearing a headscarf.
Ataturk passed a Hat Law in 1925 ordering men to replace the oriental fez with the Western looking hat, a symbol of modernity. Women's clothing was not legislated.
After the military coup in 1980, the Higher Education Board (YOK) issued a written communiqué prohibiting female students from entering university wearing the headscarf; universities enacted this new regulation within their senates. When the Motherland Party (ANAP) had a majority in Parliament in the 1980s, an addendum (Addendum 16) was passed to the YOK law attempting to dent this regulation. (It explicitly stated that girls would be permitted to wear headscarves for religious reasons in university.)
The Constitutional Court annulled Addendum 16, however.. While another addendum (Addendum 17), calling for general freedom of dress in university, was not annulled, the "rationale" of the Court's decision stated that it would not be applicable for the headscarf.
From 1989 onwards, restrictions on wearing the headscarf gradually began to disappear. However, after the 'post-modern' coup in 1997, the Constitutional Court, in its decision to shut down the Welfare Party, suggested that headscarves be banned from universities. This statement became the justification for the renewed vigour to enforce the ban.
The new regime was first implemented on 23 February, 1998 at Istanbul University, when girls with headscarves and boys with beards were prohibited from attending classes.
What now constitutes the "ban" is largely based on Constitutional Court rulings that interpret the wearing of a headscarf in a university to be a violation of secularism – and thus unconstitutional. Parliament has been denied a say in the matter. Paradoxically, the lack of any clear legal basis for the ban has now made it difficult for any government to overturn it.
Two constitutional amendments using careful, non-inflammatory language (BBC news) were passed in parliament in January 2008 with the votes of AKP (340 MPs) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has 70 MPs.
The first amendment was to Article 10 of the Constitution, on equality before the law, which deals with equal rights and non-discrimination. (The article requires state organs and administrative authorities to treat people equally in all their proceedings, irrespective of religion, political opinion or any other grounds.) The amendment strengthened this provision by stating that the principle of equality also applied to "the provision of all public services".
"State organs and administrative authorities shall act in compliance with the principle of equality before the law in all their proceedings and in all activities pertaining to the provision of public services." [The amendment is marked bold.]
Article 42, on the Right and Duty of Training and Education, states that no-one shall be deprived of the right of learning and education. The amendments added "for reasons not explicitly mentioned by law", and provided that any limitation must be spelled out in law.
"No one shall be deprived of the right of learning and education for reasons not openly mentioned by laws. The limits of the use of this right will be determined by law."
Despite its fairly innocuous language and its ambiguous legal effect, the attempt to lift the headscarf ban triggered loud condemnation from some sections of Turkish society, including members of the judiciary, business organizations and academics. Istanbul University (IU)'s rector and faculty have spoken out against lifting the ban. On 31 January 2008, Rector Mesut Parlak announced at a faculty meeting that proponents of headscarf reform were endangering Turkey.
After the constitutional amendments were adopted at the parliament general assembly, the CHP applied to the Constitutional Court to have them overturned on the grounds that they violated the principle of secularism enshrined in Article 2. The "characteristics of the Republic", as defined in Article 2, cannot be amended or even proposed for amendment. In March 2008 the Court agreed to take up the case.
"The amendments do not aim to bring freedom but permit wearing the 'turban', a religious symbol, at universities. The amendments would lead to an erosion of the separation of state and religion."
On the other side, a number of liberal academics signed a petition calling for the extension of basic freedoms and democracy. The petition was drafted by Fuat Keyman of Koç University and Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University:
"It holds true, and we assert today, as we have always done, that denying an 18-year-old girl who has successfully graduated from high school and who has done well on the university [entrance] exam entry into universities because of her choice of dress is compatible neither with the principle of the right to education, individual rights and freedoms, the principle of secularism, nor with the democratic system. We see no direct cause and effect relation between freedom for the headscarf and the abrogation of secularism."
In the end, the Constitutional Court decided to overrule the amendments, leaving the unofficial ban on attending university with a headscarf in place.