“We know nothing of her except for that image.”
This was a young Turkish woman’s response to the question posed by the press about her opinion of Turkish First Lady, Hayrunisa Gul, wife of Abdullah Gul who was sworn in as president of Turkey last week.
This young woman’s answer epitomizes with precision the reality of the first veiled woman to enter the presidential palace in a state that since its inception has been embroiled in a fierce conflict between secularism and religion.
Today, Turkey is experiencing the impact of the aftershock following the accession of a religious president to power. Hayrunisa was an easy target for the political and media campaigns that were launched by secularists and intellectuals protesting Gul’s rise to power. This is the first instance of a religious candidate successfully rising to power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the secular republic of Turkey.
Hayrunisa, who is described as a witty and elegant lady, has been employed as the title of the campaign against Gul since the beginning of the elections, and even after his victory, because of the media glare over her veil. This is with the knowledge that no interview with the lady’s views and positions was conducted, given her reserved nature with the press and media. However, the statements that have been attributed to her can best be described as balanced, open and aware of the sensitivity of this issue within Turkish society. Hayrunisa’s veil would not have become a political issue had the press and media not raised and promoted it to be so. Calm smile and headscarf in place, Hayrunisa’s image has become one of the elements on the Turkish political scene.
Those campaigning against the First Lady argued that the veil is a cover obstructing her mind not just covering her head. Would the same campaigns have been launched if an unveiled narrow-minded woman had entered the presidential palace?
Hayrunisa avoided attending her husband’s official inaugural ceremony to avoid being photographed in the secular presidential bastion. Ironically, likewise; when former Turkish presidents refrained from inviting the veiled wives of some ministers it was for the same reason: to avoid a ‘shameful’ picture!
Meanwhile, Turkish newspapers have circulated information to the effect that Gul has commissioned a Turkish designer [Atil Kutoglu] to give Mrs. Gul’s a complete makeover that will modernize her look and give the veil a more contemporary image. It has been reported that he is aiming to design clothes that merge, “the glamour of Hollywood with the importance of her position.”
Perhaps this may regarded as an attempt by Turkey’s Islamists, following their rise to power, to placate the secularists at least visually so that they image of the First Lady’s veil would not be perceived as provocative.
In modern Turkey, women have a strong presence in political discussions and debates. In fact, the image of women has become fodder for an ideological and political battle, which the media is responsible for stirring up in a state where the veil remains to be one of the most controversial issues. It’s not the first time the media has set its sights on this issue; however in Turkey it has a completely different resonance than the rest of the Arab and Islamic countries.
A casual observer may adopt a hardliner and strict stand, and notwithstanding the existence of some extremist phenomena, it can still be said that Turkey displays features of a modern and moderate Islam.