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 the AK party of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
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 his party, in power for the past decade, pushed through a reform of the education system that boosted the role of religious schools.
Under the latest regulation announced on Tuesday, which takes effect in the 2013/2014 academic year, pupils at regular schools will also be able to wear headscarves in Quran 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."
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."
But others voiced support for the reform.
"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.