Turkey in the 21st century: The Legacy Of Mrs Ataturk

Eighty years ago, a bestselling new biography reveals, Turkey's first lady, Latife Ataturk, helped liberate her countrywomen by urging them to cast off their veils. But as her key role in the secularisation of Turkey comes to light, the headscarf is once again stirring passionate debate in Anatolia. Pelin Turgut reports from Istanbul

Saturday 01 July 2006 00:00 BST

Deep in the heart of Istanbul's bustling business capital, emerging from the crowd of sharply-dressed female executives, Emine Erdogan, the wife of Turkey's Prime Minister, takes centre stage. Quietly poised and softly spoken, she talks eloquently and passionately to her audience about the need to encourage more young girls to attend school. It is an issue she has made her own.

But there is something strikingly different about this particular champion of women's rights. Dressed in a smart beige suit, with a skirt that reaches to her ankles, Mrs Erdogan's earnest face is framed by a matching cream-coloured headscarf. The thrust of her talk is that Turkey's strict ban on headscarves in schools violates gender equality because it means families keep their daughters at home rather than educate them.

It has taken some getting used to for the Turks, this leading lady who covers her hair with pride. It is, after all, somewhat different from the turbulent 1920s, when the revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was placing modern Turkey on the road to Western-style reform. At his side was a woman whose achievement, above all others, was to throw off her Islamic-style top-to-toe veil and urge her female counterparts to do the same.

Under strict secular laws dating back to Ataturk's reforms, the headscarf is banned from public places such as schools, state-run universities and even the president's palace. But Mrs Erdogan, famously, has yet to attend a reception at the palace - when invited, her husband goes alone, as indeed do many of his MPs for the same reason.

For decades, the principle of secularism, the separation of religion and the state, was the guiding force of the modern Turkish republic. Ataturk, with his sweeping reforms and visionary politics, raised his country from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and recreated it as a modern, dynamic society that was still largely Muslim but embraced Western values. Getting Turkish women out of the kitchen and out from under the veil was central to Ataturk's modernising agenda and, for many Turks, his most enduring legacy.

But who was the real modernising force in Ataturk's campaign to build a modern Turkey? Previously unseen documents now reveal the crucial role played by another first lady - Latife Ussaki, Ataturk's wife - in liberating Turkish women.

A daring new biography, 25 years in the making, has finally been released in Turkey that challenges the cult of Ataturk and tells the true story of his marriage to the young suffragette who has, until now, remained a footnote in the history of both her husband and her country. Arguably, Latife's most important symbolic step was to shun Islamic attire, donning Western garb instead. She showed her face to the world with a defiance that simultaneously shocked and delighted onlookers.

The New York Times reported: "Her clothes are a pledge of reform. Her riding breeches indicate her intention of sweeping away harem conventions." Shortly after their wedding, Ataturk took her on a tour of Anatolia by train to show off his unveiled wife as a role model for modern Turkish women. "It's not just a honeymoon, it's a lesson in reform," one observer wrote.

Ironically, more than 80 years later, the way Turkey's prime ministerial spouse dresses is still a subject of national debate. While her husband, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been compared in some quarters with Ataturk thanks to his dogged pursuit of Turkish membership of the EU and, Emine Erdogan makes headlines for doing precisely the opposite of her 1920s counterpart. Instead of shunning the headscarf, she wears it with pride.

Official history portrays Latife as a rude, shrewish woman whose penchant for stomping downstairs to wrest her husband away from late-night drinking sessions and chastising him in public eventually wrecked their marriage. She is mentioned only in passing in the drama that was Ataturk's premiership.

Yet, bizarrely for someone considered apparently so insignificant, Latife's diaries and other papers were for years judged so potentially explosive that they were kept under lock and key in a sealed vault by the Turkish History Institution for 25 years. Her family subsequently refused to make the vault's contents public out of respect, they said, for Ataturk.

The author Ipek Calislar, who spent several years researching Latife's life, said: "The biography sheds light on the real Latife, her marriage, her ideas, in a way that official history hasn't. It also lays bare a different side of Mustafa Kemal - as a husband." The book is already a smash hit in Turkey, selling 20,000 copies in two weeks.

A veteran journalist, Calislar paints a detailed picture of a feisty young woman who played a far larger role in the radical reform and creation of the modern republic than has been previously thought. Educated abroad, multilingual, charming and confident, Latife fearlessly broke with tradition.

At a time when women were consigned to the home and veiled from head to toe outside it, she lobbied for laws, such as the right to vote, that gave Turkish women rights few European countries had at the time. Foreign correspondents wrote that she symbolised "the birth of a new Turkey".

She even sought to become an MP, but was snubbed by Ataturk. So forceful a character was she, Calislar suggests, that ultimately it was the couple's clash of wills that led to the breakdown of their marriage. After a heated argument one evening in 1925, Ataturk decided to divorce her - by decree - and sent her back to her parental home in Izmir. They never spoke again. Latife went on to live the life of a recluse. She never spoke in public, and died in 1975, thrououghly airbrushed out of Turkish history.

Not so her husband. No taboo is greater in Turkey than the inviolability surrounding Ataturk, whose name means literally Father of the Turks and figuratively carries equal significance. His picture stares down from every classroom wall in the country, every office, every shop. Bank-notes carry his portrait, his statue is in every town and his sayings are regarded as sacrosanct. He may have died in 1938, but rather than fading into the background over the past seven decades, Ataturk has attained an almost mythical, omnipresent status that is rivalled by none.

Not surprisingly for a man with such godlike credentials, the details of Ataturk's personal life have always been strictly off-limits. Little is known of his existence outside the public arena; the very idea of delving into his romantic life is considered akin to sacrilege. This, coupled with the disappearance of Latife, his wife for a brief two-and-a-half years, from the collective national memory, has fuelled enormous interest in the new biography.

Mrs Erdogan's headscarf has now become the central issue in the debate over whether her husband should run for president next year. The presidency is largely ceremonial, but it is the post held by Ataturk and so comes with many symbolic strings attached. Secularists are incensed at the prospect of a veiled woman as first lady because they see it as an affront to the reforms that Ataturk strove to introduce.

"Turkey cannot have a president whose wife wears a headscarf," insists Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP). To hardline secularists such as Mr Baykal, the headscarf is a symbol of "backwardness".

The female deputy leader of the CHP, Canan Aritman, recently wrote and made public a letter to Mrs Erdogan that said: "The way you dress while on trips abroad where you are representing the Republic of Turkey offends Turkish women. I respect your personal preference. But women in the modern Republic of Turkey have accepted a non-veiled, contemporary Western style of dress. If you must go on visits abroad with your husband, be like a contemporary Turkish woman. If you can't be that way then please stay at home."

All this outrage over a headscarf might seem bizarre to the outside world. But that small square of cloth has become the arena in which Turkey's secularists - who include the military and the courts - and the ruling, Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) do battle. Secularists argue that it has become a symbol of political Islam and is one step towards a secret agenda that seeks to convert Turkey to Islamic sharia law. Islamists, meanwhile, see the issue as a basic human right.

Although the AKP came to power in 2002 by pledging to lift the ban on headscarves in universities and schools, it has not dared defy the military, for whom this is a cornerstone of Turkey's secular identity. The AKP had hoped that Turkey's European Union accession bid and attendant human-rights progress would help them ease restrictions but those hopes were dashed last year when the European Court of Human Rights ruled to uphold the ban and said that it was constitutional.

And the fact remains that Turkey's EU membership is looking increasingly unlikely. Only yesterday, the Finnish Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, said that the European Union could suspend entry talks with Turkey during his country's presidency if Ankara failed to meet the bloc's requirements. "There is always the possibility to stop the negotiations, I believe Turkey knows that."

The future, then, is uncertain, both for Mrs Erdogan and her husband's presidential ambitions, and for Turkey itself. More than four decades after Latife made a very public point of removing her veil, the tensions tugging at Turkey's soul are still embodied in the piece of fabric that a woman wears on her head.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in