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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 05:07 GMT 06:07 UK
Viewpoint: Turkey's soul unveiled
Internationally acclaimed writer Elif Shafak says women's bodies have become a battlefield for competing views of modern Turkey.

Here she comments on the impact of Abdullah Gul's election as president. Mr Gul is a former Islamist whose wife controversially wears the headscarf.

Ms Shafak was tried last year - and acquitted - on charges of "insulting Turkishness" in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul.

In the history of every country, there are certain periods when time flows more quickly and perhaps more painfully.

The year 2007 has been one of the most turbulent years in recent Turkish history.

Turkish Eurovision winner, Sertab Erener
Turkey's pop music reveals its close identification with the West

And yet, Turkey has an amazing capacity to rapidly normalise things and generate stability out of commotion.

Now, after months of mass demonstrations and rising political tension, Turkey has finally chosen its president.

Much to the dismay of the conventional secular elite, the former foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, has become the new president.

In fact, very few people have a problem with Mr Gul's personality. He has been a successful, pro-EU diplomat and a mild and moderate voice within his party.

His public support for journalists and writers on trial has also brought him close to intellectuals.

Today, in addition to his own electorate, he has the empathy and support of many in the intelligentsia and business circles.

Interestingly, it was less Mr Gul himself than his wife who has been discussed and challenged - if not rejected - by the country's mainstream elite.

Idealised image

In Turkey today any debate on gender or women is almost instantly overshadowed by politics.

Elif Shafak
Turkish... society and culture is a harmonious fusion of seemingly opposite forces
Elif Shafak

Women's bodies and images have become ideological battlegrounds.

It is around the symbols of femininity that bleak political dilemmas revolve.

And among all the symbols of femininity none has been as problematic as the headscarf.

Gender issues have always been vital in the consolidation of the modern Turkish nation, founded by Kemal Ataturk after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

His reformist movement was unique among those emerging from the Muslim world in that it ventured and managed to transform not only the public sphere but also the private sphere - the domain of mothers, wives and daughters.

Eighty years on, today's trouble with women with headscarves is that they do not fit into this picture of the idealised "modern Turkish woman".

Women in spotlight

With the Gul presidency now in progress, the modern Turkish nation state will for the first time have a First Lady wearing a headscarf.

Abdullah Gul and his wife
Mrs Gul's headscarf has divided opinion among Turks

And here lies the crux of the problem. That headscarf has been interpreted as the symbol of darker and deeper changes.

If the First Lady wears a headscarf, maintain the secularist elite, the whole secular system could be undermined.

There is a lot of talk on the theme "how should an ideal Turkish woman look?"

Newspapers, TV channels, radios, workshops, panels and conferences centre on this question.

Interestingly, Turkish women have been at the forefront of this debate.

It seems some of Turkey's Westernised, modern, secularist women are determined to show their opposition to the "other" Turkish women.

Family traditions

As a novelist, the linguistic jam in this whole debate is of great interest to me. I can find more than eight different words in Turkish, each of which stand for some form of headscarf.

Yemeni, turbaan, esharp, charshaf - every one is different. But this complexity is completely lost when they are all lumped together under the category of "the veil".

Fashion designer and model
Turkish society, like its fashions, seeks to reconcile opposites

When we talk about the headscarf now, words explain less and confuse more.

Women wear the headscarf for different reasons. Most wear it out of habit or for utterly traditional reasons rather than political motives.

Not all covered women are giving a political message. Similarly, not all covered women are "ignorant" or "repressed".

More significantly, the structure of the Turkish family constantly brings together covered and uncovered women.

Sometimes the mother-in-law is covered but the daughter-in-law is not. One sister is covered but not another.

Even taking a stroll along a crowded street in Istanbul will show us how covered and uncovered women live together all the time.

Muslim and secular

Turkish politics might thrive upon dualities but Turkish society does not. The society and culture is a harmonious fusion of seemingly opposite forces.

Secularists demonstrate in Turkey
Kemal Ataturk is revered as the father of modern, secular Turkey
When Western media cover the situation in Turkey they frequently use terms such as "Islamist" for the ruling AK Party. That, however, is misleading.

In order to understand the AKP's internal dynamics and continuing political success we need to abandon the term "Islamist" or "fundamentalist" altogether.

We can call them "Muslim democrats" for instance. Or find another concept that works.

Within the amazing diversity of the Muslim world, Turkey occupies a unique place.

In an age when the number of people who believe in a clash of civilisations escalates every day, here is a country that is predominantly Muslim and staunchly secular at the same time.

And here is a country that started its modernisation more than 150 years ago and today wants to join the EU.

The discussion on the president's wife and the position of women in Turkey lies at the centre of all these massive political debates.

Profile: Abdullah Gul
28 Aug 07 |  Europe
Q&A: Turkey's presidency battle
28 Aug 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
28 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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