Thousands of Turks, most of them women, marched through the streets of Ankara Saturday in the first major public protest against the policies of the Islamic-led government.
Marchers carried signs and chanted slogans condemning what they believe are efforts to move Turkey closer to sharia, the strict law of the Koran, which imposes many restrictions on women.
“Let Turkey shout ‘Down with sharia,”’ they chanted. One banner proclaimed, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” while another said simply, “Women Exist.”
Turkey is the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East, and the role of religion in public life is restricted by both law and custom.
Turkish secularists fear that moves toward Islamic fundamentalism here may set an example for other moderate Muslim countries, and the organizers of Saturday’s march hoped the protest would prove that anti-fundamentalist sentiment remains widespread in Turkey.
Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Muslim-oriented Welfare Party, is seeking to end restrictions on women wearing veils or head scarves in the civil service and on public university campuses.
He contends that he is simply defending freedom of choice, but critics believe he is using the issue as part of a campaign against secularism.
Women played a crucial role in supporting the secular reforms decreed during the 1920s by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and more than two-thirds of those who marched through a cold rain in Ankara Saturday were women.
Sponsors of the march included not only women’s groups but also labor unions, law and medicine associations, and cultural and retirees’ organizations.
“We are marching against sharia and the darkness that aims to keep women outside of humanity,” said Senal Sarahan, a leader of the Modern Lawyers’ Association, one of the groups sponsoring the rally.
Another marcher, Sabiha Kizilirmak, 59, was draped in a Turkish flag to which she had pinned a portrait of Ataturk. “I don’t want to live under a black sheet,” she said.
“We are the real Muslims, not those who want to turn back the clock.”
Armored cars and hundreds of police officers, many of them women, lined the route of march, but no clashes were reported.
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