ISTANBUL, Oct 17 (Reuters) - In a landmark decision, Turkey's Higher Education Board earlier this month ordered Istanbul University, one of the country's biggest, to stop teachers from expelling from classrooms female students who do not comply with a ban on the headscarf.
It was the latest twist in a long political and legal tussle in Turkey between those who see the garment as a symbol of their Muslim faith and those who view it as a challenge to the country's secular constitution.
"I was ready to wear the wig, just like my cousin did," said Gungor, a 18-year-old student wearing a pastel-coloured headscarf. "This is about my freedom. I don't see why my headscarf should be seen as a threat to anybody."
The debate is not unique to Turkey -- France and Kosovo, for example, ban headscarves in public schools, and parts of Germany bar teachers from wearing them.
But it goes to the heart of national identity in this country of 75 million Muslims whose modern state was founded as a radical secular republic after World War One.
Disputes over the headscarf and other public symbols of Islam are part of a wider debate over how to reconcile modernity and tradition as Turkey tries to achieve its decades-old ambition to join the European Union.
Together with the courts, Turkey's army -- which has a long history of intervening in politics and has ousted four elected governments -- has long seen itself as a bulwark against any roll back towards Islamisation. Easing Turkey's secular laws would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But reforms aimed at bringing Turkey closer to the EU have clipped the generals' power. In a sign of how influence and attitudes are shifting, the latest change on headscarves happened with more of a whimper than a bang.
"This is the same fight Turkey has had for 80 years over the secular-pious issue," writer Mehmet Ali Birand commented in an article entitled "Let them dress the way they want".
"The world has changed. Turkey has changed. Let's close those old books and look into the future," Birand said.
A bid by the ruling AK party to lift the headscarf ban three years ago sparked a major political crisis and almost led to the party being closed by the Constitutional Court for anti-secular activities.
But the rise of a new class of observant Muslims to form the backbone of the AKP, which has its roots in political Islam and has held power since 2002, is challenging old notions.
Opponents of the headscarf ban -- in place since a 1982 military coup -- say it is a violation of individual freedoms and incompatible with a modern democracy. Supporters say the prohibition is necessary precisely to defend Turkey's democratic values.
"Turkey needs to find a new relationship between state and religion," Ergun Ozbudun, an constitutional expert, said at a recent lunch with EU ambassadors and journalists.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who comfortably won a referendum last month on government-sponsored constitutional reforms, has declared plans for a brand new basic law.
Seen as clear favourite in 2011 elections, the AKP is widely expected to try again to remove the headscarf ban. Among reforms approved in last month's referendum were an overhaul of the Constitutional Court, traditionally dominated by secularist judges.
Until the decision by the Higher Education Board, girls from religiously conservative families say they had to wear hats or wigs to conceal their headscarves in order to attend classes. Others decided to stay at home.
As the tide turns, some secularists fear growing social conservatism and "neighbourhood pressure" will force them to change their lifestyle and adopt the headscarf.
"I don't think we will feel pressure to cover here in Istanbul, but I believe there could be a risk in most universities in Anatolian cities," said 18-year-old Begum Yildiz, a female student smoking a cigarette outside the university's entrance.
Another student who did not give her name was less sanguine: "I don't want the ban to be lifted. I know many girls whose families force them to wear the headscarf and they take it off at college. University has been a place for them to feel free."
Pinar Gedik, a student of Arabic who wears a pink headscarf, said the ban was still being enforced in some faculties.
"I can attend classes with my headscarf now, but it's still banned in many departments. The pressure is still there."
Although symbols of Islam are now more common in the public sphere, sensibilities are still raw. The talk of the town these days is whether generals and secularist politicians will attend a Oct. 29 reception at the presidential palace on National Day.
President Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf as does Erdogan's, traditionally hosts two separate receptions for guests with covered and uncovered wives. This year he plans to hold one ball.
Muharrem Ince, a senior MP from the secularist Republican People's Party, has said his party will boycott the ceremony.
"The president is changing the tradition of double receptions. This is because the AKP want to impose the headscarf not only at universities but from top to bottom," he said.
By Ece Toksabay
(Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)