ISTANBUL — When the Turkish Republic was founded 90 years ago, then-President Kemal Atatürk’s wife Latife met the Italian ambassador at a reception in Ankara and asked him about the state of feminism in his country. The diplomat replied that for Italian women feminism meant marrying and providing their husbands with healthy offspring.
“What an outdated idea,” Latife replied.
This exchange — recounted by Latife’s biographer Ipek Calislar — was only made possible by the young woman’s courage and the revolutionary ideas of her husband, who not only did away with the Ottoman Empire’s segregation of the sexes but also with the Empire itself.
In 1918, Atatürk wrote in his journal, “We have to be bold when it comes to the question of women.” At that time, the man who five years later would found the Turkish Republic, was on one of his few trips abroad to a spa in Karlsbad. Between mud baths and swimming, the general watched the “fine, beautiful women” dancing the four step with men in tuxedos. He wrote in his journal, “If I am entrusted with power, I think I must immediately introduce the desired changes in our society.”
Born in 1881 in Selanik, modern-day Thessaloniki, Atatürk felt from a young age that he was called to greatness. His political ambitions and military skill came together at the right moment to spell the end for the reign of the sultans and caliphs. From his base in eastern Anatolia, Atatürk organized the uprising against the Western troops who had set their sights on the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Greek attempts to expand into the region were similarly defeated in the Turkish War of Independence.
The Peace of Lausanne guaranteed Turkey secure borders, but it also uprooted 1.25 million Greeks and 500,000 Muslims from their homes in a “population exchange” approved by the West. On Oct. 29, children and grandchildren of the exiles recently sailed from Istanbul to Thessaloniki in a gesture of friendship and reconciliation.
Atatürk chose the dusty Anatolian city of Ankara as his capital, symbolizing a break with the extravagance of the sultans. It spelled the end for the harem, the veil and the fez. Latife appeared beside her husband with her hair cut into a boyish bob.
Headscarves increasingly politicized
On the evening of Oct. 29, the presidential palace in Ankara welcomed international diplomats to celebrate the republic’s anniversary. It would be no surprise if the current president’s wife should find herself chatting with the Italian ambassador, as Hayrünnisa Gül is a pioneer in her own right. She is the first Turkish president’s wife to go to the European courts to demand the right to wear an Islamic headscarf.
Indeed, clothing has been a controversial topic in Turkey for 90 years, and the bewildering contradictions in daily life have their roots in the founding of the republic. Atatürk was suspicious of religion and banned Islamists, sending them underground and causing deep divisions in society.
Secularism is at the heart of Kemalism — Atatürk’s political ideology — but in the past it has been used by the Turkish elite as a means of privileging the Sunni religion to the detriment of the Alevi and Christian minorities.
But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan is making changes in this area. He argues that his government guarantees rights for all, including those with religious convictions, and one of his main achievements has been lifting the ban on women in headscarves teaching in public schools.
The headscarf is a flashpoint in Turkish politics, but among the younger generation it does not cause such division. The secular protesters in Gezi — dismissed by ErdoÄŸan as hooligans — protected praying Muslims from the police, and pious women sat down to eat on the grass with non-believers.
Atatürk sought an emphatic break with the Ottoman Empire. He encouraged Turkish nationalism and introduced the Latin alphabet, producing a generation who were unable to read historical texts. His reasoning, according to his biographer Klaus Kreiser, was that the Turkish state “would be modern and progressive or would not exist.”
After Atatürk’s death in 1938, his successor built a grand mausoleum in Ankara, a marble testament to his political legacy. Now many Turks are turning back to their nation’s founding father amid political tensions, but that does not necessarily mean a renaissance for the old Kemalism.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded in 1923 and currently the largest opposition party in government, has so far been unable to profit from the mood of political unrest that erupted in Gezi Park. When the protesters held up Atatürk posters amid a fog of tear gas, they were searching for stability in a changing world. As negotiations for EU membership have stalled, Europe has lost its appeal for many young Turks and instead they now take pride in their own country, despite its problems. Atatürk, whose adopted surname means “Father of the Turks,” is the perfect symbol to grasp for.
In 1925, Atatürk and Latife divorced. Her younger brother Münci thinks that the reason was that Latife did not show her husband the respect he demanded. “My sister was a great woman,” he says. “But she treated him like any other man.”
In the end, perhaps Latife proved too revolutionary for Atatürk.