ISTANBUL, Turkey — Funda Altintas picks at her lamb kofte and salad and tentatively describes her dream.
"I really want to be a professor," the 23-year-old psychology graduate says. "My father says that maybe in 10 years I'll be able to be a professor."
On a night out on the town, Altintas' friends also share their ambitions: Melike Akkus, 25, and Fatma Betul Yumuk, 22, are getting their MBAs. Esma Bendez, 23, would like to focus on intercultural studies.
Despite earning degrees from one of Turkey's best universities, none can be sure of reaching their career goals. What stands between them and their ambitions has little to do with dedication, loans or standardized tests. Instead, it is the traditional Muslim head covering they all wear.
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Parliamentarians, judges, teachers and professors are forbidden from wearing the headscarf in public buildings, even though Turkey is predominately Muslim and governed by the Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP). Held in place by an old guard of secular bureaucrats, judges and the army, the ban has been eased at universities but remains unofficially applied in large parts of the private sector.
For many Muslims, the right of women to dress in accordance with their beliefs is on the front line in a battle with the traditional ruling class. For many secular Turks, the head covering is a symbol of everything they fear Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan government is working toward — political Islam and the oppression of women.
Istanbul seems to comfortably meld the old with the new, the secular with the religious. A sleek tram car rumbles through the Old City. The Blue Mosque's soaring minarets and a hulking Aya Sofia — first a basilica, then a mosque and now a museum — crown a skyline that is both ancient and modern.Slideshow: Istanbul: An emerging power's ancient heart (on this page)
Women with and without headscarves walk through the city, arms sometimes linked. Despite appearances, what is known here as the "turban" remains one of the most polarizing issues in Turkey.
'Shock, awe and sadness'
Merve Kavakci-Islam's experience illustrates how explosive one piece of clothing can be. At the age of 30, she was elected as a lawmaker for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) in 1999.
Jeers greeted the engineer when she arrived for her swearing-in wearing a headscarf. For 45 minutes, dozens of rival parliamentarians chanted: "Out, Merve Kavakci! Out!"
"The prime minister (Bulent Ecevit, who served in the role until 2002) got up and pointed at me with his finger and said, 'Put this woman in her place,'" she told msnbc.com.Story: US ally Turkey flirts with Mideast's 'bad boys'
Kavakci-Islam never took her seat. She was stripped of her Turkish citizenship within weeks and two years later her party was closed down.
Now a lecturer at George Washington University and Howard University, Kavakci-Islam says she felt "shock, awe and sadness" at her treatment in parliament.
"I was Western-educated — (with) all the qualities that the republic wanted," she says. "But one-quarter of the parliament were protesting against me."
The governing party is in a tight spot. In 2008, the AKP's failed attempt to lift a ban on Islamic dress at universities was used in a legal bid to shut it down. It was alleged the party had violated the country's secular constitution. And while the party says it will support university students expelled for wearing the "turban," it has refused to back around a dozen headscarved women who filed candidate applications ahead of June's parliamentary elections.
"There should be candidates wearing headscarves, but not now," AKP deputy leader Bulent Arinc said last month.
Even after the secular republic was established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, many women continued to cover their heads. The ban has been enforced with varying severity over the years, but the vast majority of women of the traditional elite did not and do not cover their heads.
Akkus, Bendez, Betel Yamuk and Altintas pressed their point while at college. The four friends led five months of demonstrations at Bosphorus University when a new rector decided to enforce the ban on headscarves.
They say they are tired of fighting for the right to get ahead while expressing their faith publicly.
"You have to convince other people that you are a thinking person with ideas and thoughts," Yamuk says.
Bendez told msnbc.com it is difficult to debate the subject with fierce secularists.
"Everybody talks to me, but they don't try to understand me," she said.
Secularists say easing the ban not only would betray the country's tenets but fundamentally hurt women's rights.
"The headscarf is a religious symbol but today it is a political symbol," said Nihal Kizil, the vice president of educational charity Association to Support Contemporary Life. "Can you imagine a headscarf-wearing judge presiding over a woman without a headscarf?"
The four friends say they constantly feel disadvantaged because of the way they dress.
Leaning over a cup of sugary tea served in a traditional tulip-shaped glass, Akkus says the fact that she covers her head has had a big impact on who will hire her and the size of her salary.
"I graduated from the best management programs in Turkey, and yet I earn half of what my classmates do," she said.
Akkus recounts a conversation with an executive with one of the world's biggest car companies. She asked him why his firm didn't hire headscarf-wearing women in management positions in Turkey but did in other parts of the world.
"He told me, 'We have to follow the rules of the country,'" Akkus said.Story: 'Pushed aside': Turkey's Kurds lose hope
But Akkus, Bendez, Betel Yamuk and Altıntas agree that society is changing.
"Ten years ago, you couldn't imagine the president's wife in a headscarf," Betel Yamuk says optimistically.
The fact that President Abdullah Gul's wife, Hayrunnisa, covers her head has also been noticed by the country's army chiefs, who in October boycotted the Republic Day reception hosted by first lady.
Akkus is less upbeat than Betel Yamuk. She recounts the anger and humiliation she felt at the age of 14 when female students at her school were forced to uncover their heads.
"Soldiers came to our school," she says. "It was the hardest thing I have experienced."
Akkus and her mother wept that day and she vowed never to return to school. She did eventually return without her headscarf, but also forged a new long-term goal: "We decided the best thing for me to do would be to become a very important person."
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