GERMANY’S president, Christian Wulff, paid his first official visit to Turkey last week, accompanied by his lissom wife, Bettina. Hayrunnisa, the wife of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, took part in the official welcoming ceremony, saluting Turkish soldiers as she walked down the red carpet with her German guests.
Nothing out of the ordinary, it seemed. But in 2007 the generals had threatened to step in to prevent Mr Gul from becoming president because of his wife’s Islamic-style headscarf. It didn’t work, but until last week Mrs Gul had chosen to shun official events where the generals were present for fear of provoking their ire.
The headscarf remains at the core of the continuing battle between overtly pious and pro-secular Turks. The former insist it is an expression of faith. The latter retort that it is a symbol of political Islam, a stab in the heart of Ataturk’s republic. More than half of Turkish women cover their heads in some way, and the number is growing. Yet the garment has long been barred from schools and universities. Headscarved women cannot work in state institutions or run for parliament. When the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party tweaked the constitution in order to ease the headscarf ban soon after being re-elected in 2007, it was threatened with closure by a prosecutor and only narrowly survived.
Mrs Gul’s decision to emerge from the shadows comes amid a fresh bout of tension over the headscarf. This erupted after Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, president of the Higher Education Board and a Gul appointee, decreed that universities could no longer kick out veiled students and that they would no longer be barred from sitting university entrance exams. Within days many universities began to relax the rules. This prompted the country’s chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya (who initiated the closure case against AK) to declare that Mr Ozcan was violating the constitution.
This leaves Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the pro-secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in a bind. He wants to change the party’s antediluvian image, and promised to back AK’s bid to ease the ban in universities. But this prompted a furore among the CHP’s Kemalist old guard. Mr Kilicdaroglu is now demanding assurances from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, that the scrapping of the headscarf ban will not be extended to secondary schools and government offices. Mr Erdogan has refused to give any. Secularists are also concerned that new constitutional changes could allow the government to stack the judiciary with headscarf-friendly Islamists.
Tarhan Erdem, a pollster, argues that allowing the headscarf into schools could put pressure on all girls to veil themselves, particularly in the conservative Anatolian hinterland. The counter-argument is that fathers and husbands will allow women to work only if they are bearing the stamp of virtue provided by veils. Moreover, not all veiled women are paragons of modesty: in cities like Istanbul and Izmir headscarved girls sporting hip-hugging jeans and snogging their boyfriends are not an uncommon sight. Some of Turkey’s most formidable feminists cover their heads.
Rather than squabble over a piece of cloth, Turkey’s politicians might devote energy to addressing gender inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, female participation in the labour force has fallen from 34% to 26% since 1989. Women make up only 9% of parliamentary deputies. The highest proportion of these belong to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP), the only party that has a quota for women deputies (40%). The Kurds agree that the headscarf ban should be eased in universities, and suggest rewriting the constitution as the best way of doing this. Yet this week Mr Erdogan said a decision on the ban will be put off until next year. With an election due by next July, some battles are not yet worth fighting.