Preparing glasses of tea with leathery hands, Yasar says he has learnt to value education. He may run a hot drinks stall in Istanbul, but of his four daughters one is an engineer, another a teacher, the third is a lawyer and the last is still studying.
His family is a relative rarity in Turkey, a country where, according to the United Nations, only 24 per cent of women have jobs or are seeking them – half the level of the European Union average and less than in Algeria and Qatar.
Education makes a particular difference here. While about 10 per cent of Turkish women are illiterate, their well-educated counterparts have prospects that compare well with elsewhere, holding about a third of senior management positions in Turkish business.
This is the backdrop to a battle over proposed school reform that exposes the century-old faultline in Turkish society between religious conservatives and secularists, pitting leading industrialists against the government.
Supporters say the education reforms will help erase the legacy of Turkey’s undemocratic past and make education more attractive to conservative, religious families. Critics allege the changes could encourage some households to take their daughters out of school.
“There is a concern that the number of child brides and child labourers will increase,” says Guler Sabanci, the head of Sabanci Group, one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates.
Stallholder Yasar shares these fears. “I am against these reforms; they will increase illiteracy,” he says.
Merve, a student who like most Turkish women covers her head, disagrees: “It will make it easier for girls with headscarves to go to school.”
At issue are government plans to substitute the current eight uninterrupted years of primary school education with four years at infants school followed by four at middle school. The change will allow children aged 10-14 to attend specialist religious schools, known as imam hatip schools.
The reforms are the brainchild of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s popular and powerful prime minister. Mr Erdogan emphasises the “non-democratic” origins of the present education system, introduced in 1997 after the military ejected an Islamist-led government and closed the imam hatip middle schools by decreeing that children should stay at infants school for eight years. The secular rulers of the time never disguised that they wanted to push aside religious schools for younger children, although imam hatip schools continued for those aged 14 or above.
“We are ending oppression,” Mr Erdogan told his members of parliament this week, after his party hurried the bill along amid fisticuffs with opposition MPs.
But the 1997 shift had other effects as well. According to a study by Istanbul’s Koc University and Tusiad, the Turkish business federation, the proportion of girls married at the age of 16 fell 46 per cent in the succeeding years.
Some business leaders voice concerns that the latest change could reverse this trend.
Umit Boyner, Tusiad’s chairwoman, has suggested the proposed new system of separate infants and middle schools could also encourage parents to keep their girls at home after the first four years. Tusiad adds that most developed countries do not have specialist education before 16 and that a broad education is important for a flexible labour force.
Mr Erdogan, who has spoken of his ambitions to raise a religious generation, has told Tusiad to mind its own business. The package of school reforms also extends the period of compulsory education from eight to 12 years, which supporters say will improve educational standards and combat illiteracy.
Nursuna Memecan, a ruling party MP, emphasises that while the origins of imam hatip schools was to train the future Muslim clergy, the schools teach the full curriculum.
“Imam hatips have provided education to many boys and girls who otherwise would not be in the educational system [because their conservative parents would keep them away],” Ms Memecan says.
The government has backtracked on measures allowing home education for children aged 10 and above – a provision that had raised concerns about girls dropping out. But educationalists protest that they were not consulted on the reform, even as Mr Erdogan underlines his determination to push it through.