Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development party has won the first of two votes in parliament to change the country's constitution to lift a ban on the wearing of religious headscarves at universities. The move is proving deeply controversial with opponents of the reform who argue it threatens the secular foundation of Turkey. Dorian Jones reports for VOA from Istanbul.

In the first two rounds of voting, the parliament voted 401 to 110 and 404-99 in favor of constitutional amendments to end the 28-year ban on headscarves in universities. The amendment has to be confirmed in a second vote Saturday.

In an often heated debate, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said the reform will end an injustice. He said in a democracy everybody is equal before the law and the lifting of the ban is being done to end discrimination. He says the change is being made in the name of freedom.

The main opposition People's Party condemned the vote.

RPP parliament member Nur Serter says wearing a religious headscarf sends the wrong message. She points to the experience of neighboring Iran.

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

While its population is overwhelmingly Muslim, Turkey is a strictly secular state. Lifting the ban on headscarves at universities has raised concerns that the ruling party is trying to undermine secularism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denied this.

Protests against the lifting of the ban have been held across the country. In Ankara, 100,000 people went into the streets last Saturday to express their opposition.

Still, the latest opinion polls show a majority of the people favor lifting the ban and six out of 10 women wear headscarves.

Political columnist Nuray Mert warns the government drive to introduce change could come at a high cost.

"This tension will go on and on. I can't see any solution at the moment or any kind of compromise," said Mert. "Neither the government takes a step back, nor the opposition. Not only the opposition party, but all these circles the judiciary , and universities they are not inclined to take a step back. So I cant see any future of compromise."

If, as expected, the ban on wearing headscarves is enacted in the second parliamentary vote Saturday, opponents are already threatening to challenge it in the constitutional court.