Turkey's secular opposition on Tuesday accused the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of seeking to impose religion on society after it lifted a ban on female students wearing the Islamic headscarf in high schools.
Erdogan, who co-founded the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), has long been accused by opponents of eroding the secular values of the Turkish state.
But the lifting of the ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf -- or hejab -- at state high schools removed one of the most contentious and significant aspects of Turkey's secular system.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, a close Erdogan ally, announced that an amendment was made to the dress code regulations for female students to say they will not be forced to keep their heads uncovered.
"I know that some female students were longing for (this change) to high school regulations," Arinc told reporters after the cabinet meeting late on Monday.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the amendment as further "democratisation".
"This should not only be seen as the lifting of the ban on the wearing of headscarf," Davutoglu told the private NTV television Monday.
"There has been an effort for freedoms and democratisation in every sphere."
"We decided to move to a more liberal approach in education on a problem that has aroused worries for some time," he added.
Education Minister Nabi Avci meanwhile declared that "all initiatives in favour of freedoms are a good thing".
He said that the government was responding to the "very numerous demands of parents of pupils" and added that the new measure would not apply to primary schools.
- 'Back to Middle Ages' -
But opponents of the AKP and Erdogan were in uproar over the decision, seeing it as the latest attempt to undermine Turkey's deeply-cherished secular system.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, based the post-Ottoman republic on a strict separation between religion and state.
"The Islamic veil has no place in schools," said the head of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The party said that it would submit a petition to the constitutional court to have the move annulled.
"Those of majority age (18) are completely free to decide. But the government cannot decide in the place of minors," said top CHP member Engin Altay.
Kamuran Karaca, head of the Egitim-Sen education union, said that the new measure would provoke a "trauma" in Turkey.
"Turkish society is heading back to the Middle Ages through the exploitation of religion," he said.
Opponents of the pious Erdogan have already expressed fear of a rapid Islamisation of society after he won the presidency in August after over a decade as prime minister which saw a greater emphasis placed on religion in Turkish life.
Last year, Turkey lifted a long-standing ban on women wearing the headscarf in state institutions as part of a democratic reform package.
Women can already wear the Islamic headscarf in universities as well as religious high schools, which controversially have expanded greatly under the AKP and where girls can wear headscarves from the age of 12.
The wives of most AKP cabinet ministers wear the hejab, as do Erdogan's wife Emine and Davutoglu's spouse Sare.
Devout Muslim women wear the headscarf from puberty to preserve female modesty, in line with Islamic tradition.
Despite Turkey's secular tradition, the Islamic headscarf is widely worn by women in more conservative areas throughout the country.