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Turkey's President Approves Controversial Headscarf Reform

Turkish President Abdullah Gul approved a landmark constitutional reform that will allow female students to wear the Muslim headscarf at university in a move critics fear will undermine the state's secular foundations.

Two headscarf-wearing women in Istanbul

They will soon be allowed to study at university with their headscarves

In a move that is likely to further anger Turkey's secular elite and army, the country's president approved the controversial reform on Friday, Feb 22.

"The amendments do not conflict with the basic principles of the republic," Gul's office said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Turkey's Parliament, where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan center-right AK Party has a big majority, voted to end the headscarf ban by 411 votes to 103.

"The proposal to change the constitution has been approved. I hope this will be the best for Turkey and hope it is done in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation," parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan said after the vote.

Passions running high

The headscarf has triggered strong emotions in Turkey with the country's old secular elite sharply at odds with Erdogan's AK party, which has Islamist roots, over the issue.

Ermine Erdogan, the wife of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan with a security official

Erdogan's wife Emine, seen here with a security official, wears the headscarf

Erdogan's party says the headscarf ban is an unfair denial of individual rights and religious liberty and discriminates against women. Almost two thirds of women in Turkey cover their heads. Erdogan's wife and daughters wear the headscarf as do those of President Abdullah Gul and many other members of the AK Party.

Turkey's old secular elite, who see themselves as upholders of modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular legacy, strongly oppose the lifting of the ban on the headscarf. They see it as a slow slide towards an Islamist state.

The issue has sparked huge demonstrations by secularists on the streets of the capital Ankara in recent weeks.

"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," shouted some demonstrators earlier in the month during protests. A majority of the demonstrators, who were waving the red and white star and crescent flag of Turkey and bearing portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, were women, including some who wore headscarves.

Secular Turks protesting in Ankara against moves to relax the ban on the headscarf

Secularist groups protested in large numbers in Ankara

Some were wearing headbands that read "We are following your oath" along with pictures of Ataturk, who set up the republic in 1923 on the strict separation of state and religion.

The headscarf ban in Turkey dates back to the 1980s. It was tightened in 1997 when the country's powerful army, with public support, ousted a government they considered too Islamist.

Opinion polls however show that a majority of Turks are in favor of easing the ban. The rerform doesn't include female professors or civil servants who will still be subject to the headscarf ban.

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