Turkish top court rules against scarf freedom at ALES, drawing ire

This ruling has drawn the ire of many observers, who accuse the Council of State of violating people's rights and freedoms and of issuing an invalid decision.

Turkish top court rules against scarf freedom at ALES, drawing ire

World Bulletin / News Desk

In what has come as another blow to individual rights and freedoms, the 8th Chamber of the Council of State on Wednesday ruled that an earlier decision by the Student Selection and Placement Center (ÖSYM) to allow the wearing of the headscarf during the Selection Examination for Academic Personnel and Graduate Studies (ALES) is invalid and cannot be enforced.

This ruling has drawn the ire of many observers, who accuse the Council of State of violating people's rights and freedoms and of issuing an invalid decision.

“The Council of State has made an unlawful and invalid decision. … It has no such authority [to override the ÖSYM decision]. The Council of State cannot nullify a decision by an administrative body. This is wrong,” said Bekir Bozdağ, parliamentary group deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Candidates wearing headscarves were able to enter exam centers without any problem during the ALES administered in November. This was after the posting of a guidebook on the ÖSYM website that stated “taking the examination with one's hair exposed” is no longer a condition to sit the test.

Previous guidebooks had stipulated that students applying to take the test were required to supply a photograph of themselves with their hair uncovered and that they could not take the exam unless they first removed their headscarves.

"YÖK to appeal"

However, uneasy with test takers being allowed to wear headscarves during the ALES, the Education and Science Workers' Union (Eğitim-İş) applied to the Council of State, arguing that the use of the headscarf during the ALES would damage the principle of secularism in Turkey.

The 8th Chamber of the Council of State unanimously decided that the ÖSYM decision on allowing headscarves during the ALES lacked legal ground in accordance with earlier rulings by the Constitutional Court, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of State. The court said the security of the examinations would be "at risk" as it would be "difficult to identify candidates" entering exam centers with headscarves on.

Higher Education Board (YÖK) President Yusuf Ziya Özcan said his board would appeal the court's anti-headscarf decision in the coming days. He said he was saddened by the decision and added: “I will have the decision examined by colleagues who are legal experts. We will do what is necessary in terms of the law. We will appeal this decision.”

The headscarf ban has been a hot topic in Turkey for over a decade and still applies to certain public and government offices and locations in Turkey. Until recently it affected university students and still continues to affect those working in the public sector. Women wearing headscarves are also not allowed to enter Turkish military facilities, including hospitals and recreational areas belonging to the military.

In its decision, the Council of State referred to constitutional articles on secularism.

The court also added that the exam results of candidates who took the test with their headscarves on in November would not be nullified.


High school students are now eagerly waiting for an announcement from the ÖSYM about whether the use of the headscarf will also be prohibited during this year's Transition to Higher Education Examination (YGS). A guidebook by the ÖSYM stated in early January that students would not be forced to take their headscarves off during the YGS. The first round of exams is due to be held on March 27.

The ban against the wearing of headscarves was toughened after the 1997 postmodern coup and has since remained a contentious issue. The wearing of headscarves was prohibited on university campuses in the late 1990s following a Constitutional Court ruling on the grounds that allowing the headscarf, which was seen as a political and religious symbol, would mean the nation's secular principles would be violated. Due to the ban, thousands of female students were either forced to take off their headscarves when attending university or drop out of higher education altogether. Candidates were also not allowed to take state exams unless they first removed their headscarves.

The ban was recently relaxed after a move by YÖK when it sent a circular to universities late last year advising teachers that they could no longer send students out of class for violating the dress code. With the YÖK move, thousands of students who choose to wear headscarves have since been able to return to university.

Bozdağ criticized the Council of State for citing “security concerns” when deciding against the freedom to wear the headscarf during the ALES. “Where does the Council of State get this authority from? Does the Constitution give it the authority to rule against a decision for security concerns? Is it the duty of the Council of State to take security measures during an exam?” he questioned.

Bozdağ said the court's decision was “shameful” in the name of the law. “I laugh at the court's reasons for a stay of execution. How can they make such a decision? How can they associate this decision with law? They are talking about reasons stemming from the Constitution and other laws. Where does the Constitution mention a ban on the use of the headscarf while taking a test? They cannot show me any constitutional article that implies such a ban,” he added.

AK Party Deputy Chairman Salih Kapusuz also criticized the Council of State for working to further increase the atmosphere of tension in society.

“Judicial bodies should contribute towards solving a country's problems. They should make decisions that will not cause people to lose confidence in the judiciary. … But the judicial bodies in Turkey issue decisions in accordance with their ideologies. These decisions may be binding on all, but they are not fair. Judicial bodies will not be able to explain the decisions to the people,” he said.

Last Mod: 19 Ocak 2011, 17:44
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