ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey lifted a ban on women wearing the Islamic head scarf in state institutions on Tuesday, ending a decades-old restriction as part of a package of reforms meant to bolster democracy.
The ban, whose roots date back almost 90 years to the early days of the Turkish Republic, has kept many women from joining the public work force, but secularists see its abolition as evidence of the government pushing an Islamic agenda.
The new rules, which will not apply to the judiciary or the military, were published in the Official Gazette and take immediate effect in the majority Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
“A regulation that formally intervened in freedom of clothing and lifestyle - a source of inequality, discrimination and injustice among our people - has become history,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on his Twitter account.
The debate around the head scarf goes to the heart of tensions between religious and secular elites, a major fault line in Turkish public life.
Critics of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan see his Islamist-rooted AK Party as seeking to erode the secular foundations of the republic founded on the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
Erdogan’s supporters, particularly in the country’s conservative Anatolian heartlands, say he is simply redressing the balance and restoring freedom of religious expression to a Muslim majority.
The lifting of the ban, based on a cabinet decree from 1925 when Ataturk introduced a series of clothing reforms meant to banish overt symbols of religious affiliation for civil servants, is part of a “democratisation package” unveiled by Erdogan last week.
The reform programme - in large part aimed at bolstering the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish community - included changes to the electoral system, the broadening of language rights and permission for villages to use their original Kurdish names.
An end to state primary school children reciting the oath of national allegiance at the start of each week, a deeply nationalistic vow, also took effect on Tuesday.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mike Collett-White