Some 125,000 flag-waving Turks on Saturday denounced the Islamic-rooted government over its plans to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves in universities - a move the foreign minister said would expand Turkish freedoms.
The government has defended its plan as a reform needed to bring Turkey in line with European Union human rights guidelines, but many including the country's influential military establishment see the move as a serious threat to the country's secular traditions.
Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told a news conference on Saturday that the government wanted to expand freedoms to turn Turkey into a "first-class democracy where freedoms in all fields are enjoyed fully".
He also said Turkey must lift the ban as part of democratic reforms aimed at European Union accession. The EU has pressed Turkey to boost freedom of expression and minority rights but has no EU position on the headscarf issue.
'Turkey will remain secular' protestors chanted (Photo: AFP)
The Parliament was expected to approve a series of legal amendments next week under which female students would be allowed to wear head scarves at universities as long as they tie them under the chin, leaving their faces more exposed.
The nuance was unlikely to win over many opponents who regard the head scarves as political statements. It even failed to satisfy some Islamists who staged separate protests in Istanbul and Ankara, demanding the freedom to wear a more Islamic-style head scarf that tightly covers the hair. Some of them covered their hair with paper bags in protest in Ankara.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," shouted protesters as they waved national flags and banners of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the republic which separated religion and state, at his mausoleum in the capital Ankara.
Turkey's powerful secular establishment, which includes army generals, judges and university rectors, sees the headscarf as a symbol of radical Islam and believe it threatens the country's secular order.
Student: Headscarf isn't about religious freedom
Turkey is 99 percent Muslim. "I am a true believer in Islam, but my religion is in my heart, not in what I wear. I feel that the headscarf will bring the country backwards," said Fatma Sarikaya, a retired engineer.
"Turkey is unique in this region. It has modernized Islam and we should be leading other Muslim countries," she said.
Many secular women fear that allowing head scarves in universities will lead eventually to their being pressured to cover their bodies as well.
Secularist professors have threatened not to allow women into class if they wore the garment. Thousands of students have been expelled over the years for trying to wear the headscarf at university.
"The headscarf is not about giving women more rights, it is about forcing women to wear an Islamic garment that makes clear that women are inferior to men. Keep the headscarf in private, not at university," said Ezgi Cakin, 22, graphic design student at Baskent University.