In the run-up to the Turkish presidency election nothing inflamed passions quite as much as the debate over a simple item of clothing. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül’s wife has been a high profile campaigner for a woman’s right to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Hayrunnisa Gül will become Turkey’s first first lady to wear the hijab since 1925.
The prospect has caused a storm between those who see the scarf as a symbol of political Islam and others who view it as an order from God. “The inside of Abdullah Gul’s head is covered,” said one woman in a Turkish street. “I’m not bothered that his wife covers her head. But imagine a reception everyone’s dressed in the modern way and…well I wouldn’t be happy to see her dressed like a Saudi woman.”
Others believe Hayrunnisa’s appearance could be a chance for Turkey’s Muslims to feel more included in society. The headscarf has been banned in government offices, schools and universities. Hayrunnisa once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the hijab at university. “So many people have been alienated in this country because of the headscarf,” said another woman. “Maybe this will allow them to feel included and them self-confidence.”
The founder of modern, secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, sought to minimise religion’s influence on society. His wife usually dressed in western-style clothes but wore the veil while First Lady to prevent a conservative backlash against her husband.
A top Turkish designer recently said he had been asked by Hayrunnisa to create a modern version of the Hijab. But this is unlikely to placate many secularists who view the headgear as a throwback, however it is cut. “We consider ourselves very modern in Turkey,” said the editor of the country’s edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. “This image of the first lady doesn’t go hand in hand with they way we say ourselves.”
An early test for the new President could come on Thursday when Gül might take his wife to a key military ceremony, where Islamic-style headscarves are banned.