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Ankara (AFP) – Turkey on Tuesday lifted a decades-old ban on headscarves in the civil service as part of a package of reforms by the Islamic-rooted government meant to improve democracy.

The measure was hailed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose wife wears a headscarf, as a “step toward normalization” and came into effect after it was published in the Official Gazette.

“We have now abolished an archaic provision which was against the spirit of the republic. It’s a step toward normalization,” Erdogan said in a parliamentary speech to his ruling party lawmakers.

“A dark time eventually comes to an end,” he said. “Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it.”

But critics accuse Erdogan of lifting the ban to force his Islamic values on the majority Muslim but staunchly secular nation.

When plans to remove the ban were first announced last week, the main opposition party labelled it “a serious blow to the secular republic” created by modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Erdogan last week unveiled a package of democratic reforms mostly aimed at improving rights for minority Kurds, but he also used the opportunity to take on the highly controversial headscarf ban.

Female civil servants are now allowed to wear the veil while their male counterparts can sport beards, both symbols of Muslim piety.

However, the ban remains in place for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pledged to remove the ban on the wearing of headscarves in all domains when it came to power in 2002. It has already relaxed the ban at universities.

The highly charged debate about headscarves lies at the heart of Turkey’s divisions between religious conservatives, who form the bulk of Erdogan’s AKP supporters, and more secular members of society.

In 1999, Turkish-American lawmaker Merve Kavakci arrived in parliament wearing a headscarf for her swearing-in ceremony. She was booed out of the house and had her Turkish citizenship revoked.

In stark contrast, a day after Erdogan’s announcement of reforms, President Abdullah Gul’s wife wore her headscarf to parliament.

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