Source AP ©

Wife of presidential candidate in Turkey draws controversy

The wife of the of Turkey's foreign minister could cause failure of his presidential candidacy. The reason is that she once challenged restrictions on wearing the Muslim headscarf in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Hayrunisa Gul, whose husband, Abdullah Gul, was picked as the ruling party's choice for president on Tuesday, dropped her case at the European court in 2004 to avoid disrupting the tenure of her spouse as Turkey's top diplomat. But she remains a troubling symbol for secularists who fear she and her husband will subject the presidency, a secular bastion, to Islamic influence.

The job is ceremonial, but the president - who is elected by the Parliament - has the power to veto legislation.

On Wednesday, the foreign minister was courting support from opposition and independent lawmakers for his presidential bid before voting, which begins Friday. But Gul was virtually certain of victory in the polling process, an outcome that could make Hayrunisa the only first lady in Turkish history to wear the Islamic attire at the presidential palace.

That would be a victory of sorts for the 42-year-old mother of three who has battled for Turkish women's rights to wear the headscarf at government offices and campuses. In 1998, followed by journalists and camera crews, she tried to register as a student at Ankara University but was 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 favor 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 Hayrunisa Gul withdrew her application after learning the court was likely to rule in favor of the ban.

"My belief in the rightfulness of my case continues," she said at the time. "However, the issue was exploited for political gains. My husband became both the one who put in the complaint and the defendant."

While many Muslims insist their faith dictates that women be covered in public, Turkey's Western-oriented secularists accuse women of wearing headscarves to support a political agenda for Islam.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose term ends May 16, made his opposition to headscarves clear by ensuring that Hayrunisa Gul and other ministers' wives who wore headscarves were not invited state banquets or other official functions at the palace.

Hayrunisa and the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wear tightly bound silk scarves that cover every strand of hair, upsetting secularist Turks who often compare them unfavorably to wives of leaders of other Muslim nations who wear Western styles.

The presidential palace was once home to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who implemented Western reforms after founding modern, secular Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk's wife, Latife Ussaki, abandoned the Muslim veil while living at the presidential palace and worked to advance women's rights in Turkey.

The Guls, who both come from the city of Kayseri in Turkey's conservative heartland, met at their cousins' wedding in 1979 and married a year later. Hayrunisa was 15 at the time.

She dropped out of school but studied for a place at university after the birth of her children. She won a place at Ankara University's department of Arabic Language and Literature, but could not register because of the headscarf dispute.

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