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Turkey: Head Scarf Debate Has Parallels Abroad

Prague, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's head scarf debate has a variety of parallels abroad -- from Iran and Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan to the former Soviet bloc, Western Europe and the United States.

Afghanistan appears to enforce the strictest requirements. The Taliban Islamic militia requires women to wear a head-to-toe covering called a "burqa" that has only a small mesh opening to allow woman to breathe and see.

Human-rights monitoring groups say Taliban militiamen have beaten and killed women for not being properly covered. The militia has also forbidden women and girls from going to school or working outside of the home and has barred male doctors from treating female patients.

In Iran, after the Islamic revolution nearly two decades ago, Muslim clerics lifted the deposed Shah's ban on head scarves and the chador and required women to wear Islamic dress in public, covering hair, arms and legs. Despite last year's election of a moderate --Mohammed Khatami -- as president, thanks largely to women's votes, the restrictive dress code remains in effect.

Head scarves have also recently become a contested issue in France among female students of North African origin and in Germany where the state parliament of Baden-Wuerttemberg recently debated whether an ethnic Turkish teacher has the right to wear a head scarf at work. The teacher's opponents argue that wearing the veil, which she would also be barred from wearing as a teacher in Turkey, was a socio-political statement and constituted interference in the educational process.

Among other parallels is the former Soviet bloc. In the early years of Communist rule in rapidly industrializing Central and East European and Soviet societies, many women of Christian as well as of Muslim origin, continued to wear head scarves or other traditional head coverings for years after they had left the farm for jobs on the factory assembly line.

Now, with the resurgence of Islam in some Balkan, Caucuses and Central Asian societies after the collapse of communism, Turkish or Iranian-style head scarves on girls have become a visible accompaniment to the establishment of Islamic schools. But the wearing of head scarves have not yet developed into a problem in public schools in the region.

Even in the United States, many urban black Muslim high school students demanded the right to wear hats and head scarves in the classroom. As education is highly decentralized in the United States, the decision was ultimately left up to school boards and even principals and teachers.