ANKARA, Turkey) — Lawmakers voted early Thursday to approve a constitutional amendment allowing female students to enter universities wearing Islamic head scarves — a move that many secular Turks view as an attempt to impose religion on their daily lives.
Lawmakers voted 401-110 in a preliminary vote in favor of the government's proposed amendment to the secular constitution. The government has defended its plan as a reform needed to give its citizens religious liberty and bring Turkey in line with European Union human rights guidelines.
A second and final round of voting was slated for Saturday.
The government has the backing of a nationalist opposition party and together they have more than the two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly required to make the change.
The head scarf issue is a source of tension in Turkey and has divided the population among those who consider the ban an affront to the religious freedoms of pious Muslims and those who fear removing the ban would erode Turkey's secular education system.
The vast majority of Turkey's 70 million people are Muslim, but they are divided over the role of Islam in politics and daily life.
Secularists regard the head covering as a political statement and argue it has no place in schools. They also fear that lifting the ban at universities would pressure all female students to cover themselves up.
On Wednesday, about 200 people gathered near the parliament building to protest the government's proposal as lawmakers convened. Hundreds of riot police, reinforced by armored vehicles, set up barricades to prevent them from marching to parliament.
"We won't allow the head scarf!" and "Down with the AKP!" the group chanted, referring to the acronym of the ruling party.
More than 125,000 people, mostly women, marched in Ankara over the weekend to denounce plans to lift the ban. University deans from dozens of private and state universities also gathered in the capital last week to show their opposition.
The issue also symbolizes the divide between the Islamic-oriented government and the country's military backed secular establishment.
The military, however, has not played a prominent role in the debate, although generals have periodically spoken up against what they view as moves to undermine secular principles introduced by the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Burhan Kuzu, a ruling party legislator denied secularism was being weakened. "If the proposed changes amount to what they say they amount to, I would be the first one to oppose them," he said.To ease concerns, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party has said that a loosening of the ban would be limited to universities, and would not be expanded to high schools or public offices.