A bill that would lift a decades-old ban on women wearing head scarves at universities was submitted to parliament on Tuesday, worrying secular Turks who fear the government is raising the profile of Islam.
Deniz Baykal, leader of the pro-secular Republican People's Party, called the attempt to lift the ban a "threat against the republic."
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned religious attire in daily life. Although the country is majority Muslim, the ban has been vigorously enforced in public offices and schools since a 1980 military coup.
Under the new proposal, female students would be allowed to wear head scarves at universities as long as they tied them under the chin, leaving their faces more exposed.
"Chadors, veils and burqas will not be allowed," Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli said in reference to Islamic clothing that covers the body from head to toe. "No one will be allowed to use head scarves as political statements against the state."
On Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party and the opposition Nationalist Action Party reached a deal to make changes in the constitution and the Higher Education Law that would allow women to wear head scarves.
The two parties together have more votes than the two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly required to amend the constitution and lift the head scarf ban. The lawmakers could vote on the bill as early as next week.
Constitutional changes to system
Last year, secularists backed by the military unsuccessfully opposed Abdullah Gul's presidential bid partly because his wife wears a head scarf. Parliament voted him into the post in August.
Gul's wife challenged Turkey's head scarf ban at the European Court of Human Rights after being barred from university in 1998 — only to withdraw her complaint when her husband became foreign minister.
Hakki Suha Okay, a prominent lawmaker of the Republican People's Party, said they would appeal to judiciary if the parliament approves the new proposal.
"Those who have open or secret aims against the secular democratic republic, those who want to change the regime are aiming to damage the Constitutional system," said Tayfun Icli, a lawmaker of the Democratic Left Party, the other staunchly secular party.
Erdogan rebuffed the criticism, saying: "The government is the guarantor and protector of the republic, secularism, the democracy and the state of law. None of our steps or practices have been contrary to that and nor will they ever be."