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Turkish Lawmakers Set to Allow Headscarves at Universities 

In Turkey, the ruling Islamic-orientated Justice and Development party has secured the support of an opposition party to push through a constitutional change ending the ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves at universities. The reform has now been submitted to parliament. The move is likely to enrage the country's secularists and clear the way for a more openly religious society. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul on how attempts to reform the country's headscarf ban is polarizing Turkish society.

For over a decade, tens of thousands of women have been barred from studying at universities because they wear the Islamic headscarf in accordance with their religious beliefs. Addressing his parliamentary deputies, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said those days are coming to an end.

He says everyone should know we have no goal other than ending the victimization of girls who are locked out of our universities.

Mr. Erdogan, whose party, Justice and Development, was re-elected in a landslide vote in July, has made lifting the ban a priority, because a large part of his constituency is observant Muslims, who feel that the state has discriminated against them for too long. Although he has been in power for more than five years, the prime minister has until now resisted reform, apparently reluctant to confront the country's secular establishment, including the military, which has forced four governments out of office since 1960.

In the gallery, overlooking the prime minister, scores of women wearing Islamic headscarves led the applause.

Member of parliament for the main opposition People's Republican Party Professor Nur Serter says wearing a religious headscarf is not just an individual freedom. She points to the experience of neighboring Iran.

"Headscarf has always been used as the main, the symbol of the political Islamic movement. For example, headscarf has been the symbol of the Iranian Islamic revolution, so Turkey is very sensitive," she said.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established modern Turkey in 1923, banning religious dress in public and enshrining the country's strict secular values in the constitution.

In recent years, more Turkish women have been covering their heads and the Islamic scarf has become a hot button issue.

While Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is now deeply divided over the role of religion in society. Many supporters of the secular state remain suspicious of the Islamic roots of the ruling AK party, which they fear is slowly undermining the country's secular foundations. This is a charge hotly denied by the prime minister.

Last year saw massive protests against the AK party's then presidential candidate Abdullah Gul because his wife wears a headscarf. The military, which sees itself as guardian of the secular state, intervened, with a statement saying it is the absolute defender of secularism and reserves the right to take action.

The crisis was resolved by an early general election which the prime minister's party won, securing nearly a two thirds majority in parliament. Parliament then elected Mr. Gul.

But despite the mandate, political columnist Murat Yetkin warns the lifting of the headscarf ban could provoke another crisis.

"There will be an escalation of tension in all sections of society, I don't think the reaction will be limited to public demonstrations. But there will be escalation in tension in many fields, like between the judiciary and government. Within the parliament there will be tension. Thank God, army remains silent, for now," Yetkin said.

Until the 1990s when the headscarf ban was strictly enforced, many of Turkey's universities witnessed violent clashes between secular and pious students over religious dress. Istanbul University experienced some of the worst violence. While many students now welcome the lifting of the ban on what Turks call turbans, there is also concern for the future.

"In the universities, I think it should be free. If one wants to wear turban, it's her problem," said one student. "But if she wants me to wear turban too, if she tries to force me to wear it then it can be dangerous.

In an attempt to prevent an escalation of tensions, Mr. Erdogan has pulled back from party demands to lift the headscarf ban in schools and state institutions including the judiciary. Also, bans on more extensive head coverings that completely cover a woman's face remain in force.

It is unclear whether such concessions will be enough to ease the concerns of the secularists, but the prime minister seems aware that he is walking a political tightrope, on this most sensitive of Turkish issues.