ISTANBUL Turkey has lifted a ban on female students wearing headscarves in schools providing religious education, in a move drawing criticism from secularists who see it as fresh evidence of the government pushing an Islamic agenda.
Education has been one of the main battlegrounds between religious conservatives, who form the bedrock of support for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, and secular opponents who accuse him of imposing Islamic values by stealth.
Those secularist fears were fuelled this year when Erdogan said his goal was to raise a "religious youth" and the AK Party, in power for the past decade, pushed through a reform of the education system which boosted the role of religious schools.
Under the latest regulation, announced on Tuesday and going into effect from the 2013-2014 academic year, pupils at regular schools will also be able to wear headscarves in Koran lessons.
Erdogan said the reform, which also ends a requirement for pupils to wear uniform, was taken in response to public demand.
"Let's allow everyone to dress their child as they wish, according to their means," he said at a news conference in Madrid on Tuesday.
"These are all steps taken as a result of a demand."
Rivalry between religious and secular elites is one of the major fault lines in Turkish public life.
Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has tamed the influence of the military - the self-appointed guardians of secularism since the modern republic was founded in 1923 - over the past decade, but he denies an Islamist agenda.
Last month the military top brass attended a reception in the presidential palace alongside the headscarved wives of the president and prime minister, something that until recently would have been unthinkable.
The secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet said the latest reform was a step towards the Islamisation of education.
"This will end with chadors," a headline in the paper said.
The latest reform followed a law approved in March allowing "imam hatip" schools specialising in religious education combined with a modern curriculum to take children from the age of 11 instead of 15.
The Egitim-Sen education sector union was 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," it said.
But others voiced support for the reform.
Gurkan Avcı, 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.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Greg Mahlich)