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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul approved a landmark constitutional reform on Friday allowing female students to wear the Muslim headscarf at university despite strong objections by the country's secular elite.
Secularists, including army generals and judges, fear lifting the headscarf ban will undermine the separation of state and religion in Turkey. The main opposition party, the CHP, said it would appeal to the Constitutional Court to quash the reform.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling centre-right AK Party say lifting the headscarf ban was essential for religious freedom in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership.
"The amendments do not conflict with the basic principles of the republic," Gul's office said in a statement which justified the amendments as an attempt to provide equal access for all citizens to higher education.
The approval of Gul, a former AK Party foreign minister, was never seriously in doubt, though secularists had argued that in the interests of national unity he should reject the bill.
The wives and daughters of Gul, Erdogan and many senior AK Party officials cover their heads.
Parliament voted to end the headscarf ban on Feb. 9 after the AK Party, which has Islamist roots, won the backing of a key nationalist party. But the issue has proved deeply divisive in Muslim but secular Turkey and has sparked large protest rallies.
The government must still amend a law governing the state body for higher education before the changes can take effect.
The headscarf ban in universities dates back to the 1980s but was tightened in 1997 when army generals, with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist. The army has remained largely quiet during the latest headscarf debates.
Political analysts say they do not expect Gul's signature to the amendments to mark an end to the headscarf debates, which are closely followed by Turkey's financial markets.
"The headscarf will remain one of the key faultlines in Turkish society. ... It is unlikely to disappear from the Turkish political scene any time soon," said Wolfango Piccoli, Turkey expert at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
"We will see the CHP appeal to the Constitutional Court. There are legal uncertainties about its ruling," he said.
The staunchly secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) says the amendments conflict with fixed articles of the constitution that define Turkey as a secular state.
Striking a conciliatory note in his statement, Gul stressed that lawmakers representing 80 percent of Turkey's citizens had voted in favour of the constitutional amendments in parliament.
Opinion polls show a majority of Turks back the reform in a country where some two thirds of women cover their heads.
But for secularists, freeing the headscarf is just a first step in what they see as a long campaign by religious conservatives to undermine secular institutions, shut women up at home and reorient Turkey towards the Islamic world.
The AK Party denies any Islamist agenda and has championed EU reforms since first sweeping to power in 2002, though that reform drive has slowed considerably in the past two years.
Gul, who is strongly pro-EU, urged the government to press ahead with EU reforms aimed at boosting rights and freedoms.