The veil creating deep schisms in Turkey

Posted on: August 27, 2007

ANKARA: Turkey’s secular establishment and its Islamic-leaning government have long quarrelled fiercely over weighty issues such as the appointment of Islamic-minded officials and the role of the military in politics. But nothing has inflamed passions quite as much as a debate over a simple item of clothing.

Secularist horror at the idea a woman who wears a headscarf might enter the presidential palace that was once home to modern Turkey’s revered – and decidedly secular – founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is at the heart of a battle over the presidential ambitions of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

Gul seems set to fulfil his dream of becoming president as parliament heads into a decisive vote on Tuesday on his nomination in which the ruling party needs only a simple majority to secure his victory.

Gul’s wife, Hayrunnisa, has been wearing the hijab, the Muslim scarf covering the head and neck, since her teens, and was a leading campaigner for women’s right to wear the scarf. The head covering, many believe, is mandated by Islamic traditions.

Secularists view the headscarf – banned in government offices and schools – as a challenge to the modern path Ataturk set for Turkey. They fear that any move to relax the headscarf ban would undermine secularism.

They scoff at the notion a woman clad in an Islamic garment might represent a secular nation that is vying for European Union membership. And they remember how Hayrunnisa Gul once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the headscarf to a university and fear she will subject the presidency to Islamic influence. “It gives me pain that she will be living at Cankaya,’’ said Ayse Nur Cubukcu, a manicurist, in reference to the presidential palace.

The controversy over Gul’s headscarf reflects the rivalry between Islam and secularism in modern Turkey. Ataturk sought to minimise religion’s hold on society in this 99-per cent Muslim population by banning religious garb and changing the alphabet from the Arabic – associated with the Holy Qur’aan – to the Latin one.

But the cultural divide between a military-backed group determined to preserve secularism and those devoted to Turkey’s religious traditions has simmered since then. An extremely pious section of the population who were once poor and alienated from the secular establishment are becoming more assertive. They see the headscarf ban as an attack on freedom of religion and feel the time has come to abandon the rigorous interpretation of Ataturk’s principles.

“It’s her personal preference,’’ Abdullah Gul said of his wife’s headscarf. “I am going to be president, she is not.’’

If Gul is elected, one of his first tests would be whether he would take his wife to a key military ceremony on Aug 30, where Islamic-style headscarves are banned. The military has hinted that it is unlikely to relax its rules, even for the president.

In the spring, secularists held massive rallies in several cities to protest Gul’s nomination and the military threatened to intervene, forcing Gul to withdraw his nomination and for the government to call early elections. Gul’s party won the July elections with a majority, which many interpreted as support for his presidential bid.

Hayrunnisa and the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wear tightly bound colourful silk scarves that cover their necks over a type of bonnet that hides every strand of hair.

Ataturk’s Sorbonne-educated wife, Latife Ussaki, usually dressed in Western-style clothes but wore the veil while first lady to prevent any conservative backlash against her husband, according to her biographer, Ipek Calislar. Ataturk and Ussaki divorced in 1925.

The Guls, who come from the city of Kayseri in Turkey’s conservative heartland, met at their cousins’ wedding in 1979 and married a year later, when Hayrunnisa was 15. She dropped out of school but studied for a place at university after the birth of her three children.

In 1998, Hayrunnisa tried to register as a student at Ankara University, knowing that she would be refused because of her covering.

She then challenged Turkey’s headscarf ban at the European human rights court, only to withdraw her complaint, saying she wanted to avoid suing a country whose foreign minister was her husband.

A year later, the court ruled in favour of Turkey’s ban on headscarves at universities, saying it did not violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Critics said at the time that Hayrunnisa Gul withdrew her application after learning the court was likely to rule in favour of the ban.

“My belief in the rightfulness of my case continues,’’ she said at the time. “However, the issue was exploited for political gain. My husband became both the one who put in the complaint and the defendant.’’


1 Response to "The veil creating deep schisms in Turkey"

To the secularists who think they are doing the right : No wonder that Turkey is still backward..

We cannot go any further when tiny things are regarded as big….
Please open your eyes….

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  • malaysia baru: To the secularists who think they are doing the right : No wonder that Turkey is still backward.. We cannot go any further when tiny things are reg
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