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 since her teens, and was a leading campaigner for women’s right to wear the scarf.

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 Quran — 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 is 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.”

Gul has pledged loyalty to Ataturk’s secular principles. It is a key issue because the president — although largely ceremonial — has the power to temporarily block legislation and appoint judges to top courts.

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 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.

Atil Kutoglu, a top Turkish designer, said he had been asked by Hayrunnisa, 42, to create a modern take on her Islamic attire. Aides to Mrs Gul denied she had commissioned the Vienna-based designer, the Turkish Daily News and Yeni Safak newspapers reported.

An aide contacted by the news agency said Kutoglu was one of many designers Mrs Gul was in touch with, but would not say if she was seeking to modernise the hijab. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I am working on a collection. Its lines have not been defined yet, but I will be taking (to) her suggestions for a modern turban,” Kutoglu told the news agency in a telephone interview.

Hayrunnisa met the haute couture designer in New York a few years ago. She asked him to sketch a few ideas for a modern hijab, the designer said.

“I use Ottoman, Turkish and Byzantine inspirations from our culture and present them in a very modern way,” he said. “This may be why she chose me.”

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.

The Turkish press often unfavourably compare the two to wives of leaders of other Muslim nations, who wear fashionable Western styles, including Queen Rania of Jordan.

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.”—AP

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