The government on Tuesday lifted a ban on head scarves for female workers in state offices, ending a longstanding restriction that has polarized Turkish society.
The change, which went into effect immediately, was introduced as part of a series of measures aimed at bolstering democratic standards in the country, including improved rights for minority Kurds.
The head scarf ban is one of the most emotionally charged issues in Turkey. It has long divided the country, pitting a rising group of religiously observant Turks who govern the country against a once-powerful secular elite that has struggled to regain control over the Turkish state.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought to address the concerns of the observant Muslims who helped sweep his Justice and Development Party into a parliamentary majority in 2002 and have delivered successive electoral victories to it since then. They have said the ban discriminates against observant women by keeping them out of public jobs.
Morning television programs showed female civil servants wearing head scarves to work for the first time since the early years of the Turkish Republic, which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
The head scarf ban will remain in the military, police force and judiciary. But government officials have hinted recently that it could soon be lifted.
Ataturk abolished religious attire as part of an effort to orient the country toward the West by promoting secularism in Turkey, an abidingly religious and majority Muslim country.
When his pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party first came to power in 2002, Mr. Erdogan vowed to improve the status of the religious majority of Turkey, who had been suppressed by the ruling secular elite. The prohibition of head scarves at universities was lifted in 2011.
But the ban nevertheless remained at public offices, regarded as the stronghold of secularism and buttressed for decades by a powerful military that had staged three coups against civilian governments. Mr. Erdogan has since tamed the military, and analysts said the lifting of the ban in public offices was the culmination of that effort.
Some secular critics doubted the sincerity of Mr. Erdogan’s claim that the lifting of the ban was a democratic move and saw it as the government’s attempt to push an Islamic agenda. In recent months, his government has been criticized in Europe and the United States for jailing dozens of journalists. Human rights groups have also taken him to task for responding with excessive force to widespread protests in June.
“If we call for equal citizenship, the head scarf ban — except certain exceptions — was necessary to be lifted in public offices,” Hasan Cemal, a writer, said on the news site T24.
However, he said, he hoped that “the balance would not be tipped against those without head scarves in the future.”
While the head scarf prohibition has been abolished, women’s attire still remains a subject of debate in Turkey. On Monday, Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling party, criticized a female host of a music competition show on a private channel for wearing a revealing blouse on screen. Shortly after, the Turkish news media reported that she had been dismissed.