While in most of the Muslim world, headscarf wearing is mandatory for women when they appear in public, predominantly Muslim Turkey had banned the practice decades ago. Turkish lawmakers have, however, now voted to approve a constitutional amendment to allow female students to enter universities wearing these scarves.
The issue symbolises the divide between the Islamic-oriented government and the military-backed secular establishment. The lawmakers voted 401-110 in a preliminary vote in favour of the government's proposed amendment to the secular constitution, which would remove the ban.
The government has the backing of a nationalist opposition party, and together they have more than the two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly required to make the change.
The proposal includes the insertion of a paragraph in the constitution stating that "no one can be deprived of (his or her) right to higher education."
A second and final round of voting is slated for Saturday and lawmakers again need to approve the move before it can become law. The head scarf issue is a source of tension in Turkey and has divided the population among those who consider the ban an affront to the religious freedoms of pious Muslims and those who fear removing the ban would erode Turkey's secular education system.
The vast majority of Turkey's 70 million people are Muslim, but they are divided over the role of Islam in politics and daily life. Secularists regard the head covering as a political statement and argue it has no place in schools. They also fear that lifting the ban at universities would pressure all female students to cover themselves up.
On Wednesday, around 200 leftists gathered near the parliament building to protest the government's proposal as the Parliament convened. Hundreds of riot police, reinforced by armored vehicles, set up barricades to prevent them from marching to parliament. "We won't allow the head scarf!" and "Down with the AKP!" the group chanted in reference to the acronym of the ruling party. More than 125,000 people — mostly women —marched in Ankara over the weekend to denounce plans to lift the ban.