ANKARA - Turkey has lifted a decades-long ban on wearing hijab in Islamic schools, to the outcry of secularists who see the move as new evidence on government efforts to Islamize the country.
"Let's allow everyone to dress their child as they wish, according to their means," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a conference in Madrid on Tuesday, November 27.
"These are all steps taken as a result of a demand."
Under the change, students at Islamic schools, known as Imam Hatip, will be allowed to wear hijab.
Pupils at regular schools will also be able to wear headscarves in Qur'an lessons.
The change will go into effect from the 2013-2014 academic year.
Hijab, an obligatory code of dress, has been banned in public buildings, universities, schools and government buildings in Muslim-majority Turkey since shortly after a 1980 military coup.
Turkey's secular elite, including army generals, judges and university rectors, staunchly oppose easing the hijab ban.
In 2008, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK) passed a constitutional change easing restrictions on hijab at university.
The new reform followed a law approved in March allowing imam hatip schools to take children from the age of 11 instead of 15.
Imam Hatip schools, from which Erdogan himself graduated, are currently attended by about 240,000 of the roughly four million high school students in Turkey.
But the move won the ire of secularists as a new step to push an Islamic agenda in Turkey.
"This will end with chadors," the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet headlined.
The Egitim-Sen education sector union was also critical of the move on school uniforms and the headscarf.
"The changes in the clothing regulations are important in enabling us to see the intense degree to which the education system is being made religious," the union said in a statement.
"Religious symbols which spread a religious lifestyle in schools and which will have a negative impact on the psychology of developing children should definitely not be used.
But other Turks voiced support for the reform.
Gurkan AvcÄ±, head of the Democratic Educators' Union (DES), said it had removed a legacy of the September 12, 1980 military coup by changing the dress code.
"We will not be able to rescue the education system from the perverse consequences of the oppression, rituals, dogma and thinking of the 'cold war' period until teachers and pupils are liberated," he said.
The AK Party is deeply mistrusted by rivals, who suspect it of using liberal reforms as a cover to roll back the republic's secularism.The pro-business AK Party, in power since 2002, sees itself as akin to Europe's conservative Social Democrat parties, and accuses opponents of scare mongering.