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Turkey allows women in military to wear hijabs

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The military was one of the last Turkish institutions to forbid the wearing of the hijab.

ISTANBUL >> Women in the Turkish armed forces have been given the right to wear Islamic head scarves in a move that marks a significant cultural shift within an institution seen historically as the guardian of Turkey’s secular identity.

The military was one of the last Turkish institutions to forbid the wearing of the hijab.

The decision, made on Wednesday and announced by the Defense Ministry, highlights the transformation in the years since of both the military and society, where the head scarf has long been emblematic of the struggle between the country’s secular and religious factions.

Since 2002, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gradually opened the public sphere to veiled women — allowing the veil on university campuses in 2011 and in the civil service in 2013. The first veiled judge appeared in court in 2015, while veiled women were permitted to serve in the police force last August.

The military’s stance softened somewhat in 2015, when an army court ruled that veiled relatives of soldiers could enter military grounds. The army’s cultural shift was also reflected in last July’s failed coup attempt. The government claims that the putsch was organized by an Islamist faction within the military, an institution previously assumed to be staffed mainly by Kemalists — followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish state.

Women serve only as officers or noncommissioned officers in Turkey. As of 2013, the last year of official data, there were 1,345 female commissioned officers and 370 female noncommissioned officers out of 723,741 military personnel in Turkey.

The decision to allow female soldiers to wear head scarves threatens to deepen concerns that Erdogan seeks to sever the country from its secular moorings.

Erdogan Karakus, a retired three-star general and head of the Turkish Retired Officers Association, claimed that Wednesday’s decision was an unnecessary intervention in military affairs and argued that the head scarf was too loaded a symbol for use within the military.

But many welcomed the decision. While some criticize Erdogan for disregarding democratic norms, citing a continuing purge of thousands of people accused of being dissidents, others praise him for bringing dignity to Turkey’s pious majority, which for decades was excluded from public life by the country’s secular elite.

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