Turkey’s first ladies and the headscarf controversy

How Turkey’s first ladies have championed the freedom to wear the veil and reconciled the nation wit

Abdullah Gul's election in 2007 sparked controversy in Turkey over the first lady's headscarf, writes Elver [AFP]

The concept of the “first lady” is unusual for Turkey. This changed in 2007 when the 11th president, Abdullah Gul, and his wife, Hayrinnusa Gul, moved into the presidential palace. In an earlier period, presidential wives were passive, virtually invisible presences, limited to presidential palace protocol, and there was no social interest in their lifestyles, political or social activities.

In the early years of the republic, most of Turkey’s presidents were selected by the parliament from among the top military leaders, emphasising the clear link between them and control of the Turkish state. There was also an implicit understanding that the Turkish military was the guardian of Kemalist secularism and that their lifestyle set a standard for Turkey’s westernised image. Eliminating the headscarf was high on the secular agenda both to achieve a Europeanised modernity and to release Turkish women from their patriarchal bondage in Ottoman Turkey.

Every year during National Victory Day, marked on August 30, the president celebrates the holiday by hosting a western style ball to which high level governmental elites are invited. The main purpose of such an event is to show that Turkey is part of the western club, and the presence of highly placed Turkish women wearing a headscarf would spoil the desired impression.

Icon of new Turkey

The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was married to Latife Hanim, a sophisticated western-educated woman who quickly became an icon of the new Turkish society.

Although their marriage lasted only two years, her image brought a western face to the new republic. Deferring to her husband’s wish, she agreed to shed her headscarf so as to serve as a model for modern Turkish women. Although Ataturk never banned the headscarf as he did the wearing of the fez by men, he was conscious of the deep cultural values of Turkish society, and understood the disconnect between his view of secularism and the headscarf.

The election of Abdullah Gul in 2007 created intense political turmoil in Turkey centred on the first lady’s headscarf. Tabloids, serious secular newspapers, state institutions, and university presidents, all supported the campaign of the Republic People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, against the supposed impropriety of a Turkish first lady wearing a headscarf.

Especially in the early years of Gul’s presidency, Mrs Gul was humiliated by the secular elite on every public occasion. They claimed that her mere presence tarnished the secular image of Turkey. Even fashion designers tried to find an acceptable outfit for the first lady. When the Guls visited Oxford University, a Turkish student insulted the first lady at a public event solely because she was wearing a headscarf. In this particular incident, the insult shocked the non-Turkish audience. Mrs Gul handled these attacks gracefully. She even shielded her husband, perhaps unconsciously, so that he did not receive nearly as much criticism as she did.

Insulting the first lady

Turkish newspapers compared Mrs Gul with other Muslim leaders’ wives, such as Mrs Assad of Syria, Mrs Mubarak of Egypt, and even Mrs Hussein of Iraq, praising their western-style wardrobes, and in the process insulted their own first lady.

In the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership, there was anxiety in the urban secular sector that Turkey was at risk of becoming a theocracy like Iran, or at least an Islamically oriented country like Malaysia. More importantly, there was a fear that the AKP government‘s unprecedented electoral success would deprive the formerly dominant elites of their political and economic power. The frustrated hardcore seculars came together in 2007 to organise anti-government republican demonstrations nationwide.

This fearmongering campaign did not stop there. It went all the way to the Turkish Constitutional Court with an attempt to have the ruling party declared illegal because the parliament amended the controversial 1982 post-military coup constitutional provision that had been relied upon to impose the headscarf ban. The AKP government narrowly survived this judicial challenge, gaining in strength with each successive election.

Since then, with a popular mandate, the administrative regulations have gradually been relaxed allowing women who wear the headscarf to attend universities, get jobs in government, and to become members of parliament. At every stage of these changing rules, the first ladies of Turkey have played a major role simply by reminding the discontented seculars that the majority of Turkish women wear the headscarf. Contrary to the widespread popular claim, as Mrs Gul explains: “There are not more headscarves than before; the headscarf-clad women have begun to be more active and as a result of this, more visible in social life.”

Now those days are behind us. Turkey is entering a new era, as the 12th president of the republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emphasised after his election. It is telling that newspapers have stopped making critical comments about the new first lady and the new prime minister’s wife, Sare Davutoglu. These ladies wear headscarves, and are often pictured in newspapers, TV programmes, magazines, but these days, are rarely subjected to criticism. Has this finally become a non-issue in Turkey? Not exactly.

In spite of the paranoia from staunch secularists, it is important to point out that the AKP did not act to breach the principles of secularism. There have been no policies put forward to intimidate those who choose not to wear the headscarf.

Absurd rules

This is certainly a “new Turkey” for the majority of Turkish citizens. These ladies fought hard, each in her own way, to benefit the more than two-thirds of Turkish women who were previously not allowed to participate in the state apparatus. Mrs Gul and Mrs Davutoglu both suffered from Turkey’s absurd rules against wearing a headscarf at university. Mrs Gul brought a headscarf suit against Turkey that went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights – albeit, she withdrew the case after her husband was appointed foreign minister.

Sare Davutoglu faced similar difficulties in medical school. After graduation, she was not permitted to stay within the university to become an academic specialist, and was unable to work in public hospitals. Yet, this did not stop her from having a brilliant career. Despite her public role in Ankara, she continues her medical practice in Istanbul. In addition, she has raised four children and is active in civil society activities. For many years, she has been heavily involved with the NGO Doctors Worldwide. She volunteered as a doctor during the 2010 flood in Pakistan, and visited the troubled Arakan community in Myanmar and went with Turkish leaders to Somalia when the country was on the verge of collapse. Mrs Davutoglu prefers to stay out of the public eye, but this is likely to be difficult now that her husband has become Turkey’s new prime minister. 

Mrs Erdogan is well known nationally and internationally for her passionate commitment to humanitarian causes in Somalia, Gaza, and Myanmar. Her emotional speech after the 2008 Gaza attack was widely reported. It was an unusual act for her to visit the families of those who lost their lives during a controversial Turkish air operation in Uludere in December 2011.

After much courage and persistence, even these secular opponents of headscarved women, have fallen silent. More importantly, these ladies have served as role models for many young women in Turkey who have been mostly liberated from the headscarf barrier.

Hilal Elver is a research professor at the University of California, UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, and author of the “Headscarf Controversy, Secularism and Freedom of Religion”, Oxford University Press, 2012.