ISTANBUL, Turkey — One image captures many of the contradictions that characterize Turkey's taboo-breaking First Lady, Semra Ozal, and her countrywomen.
Wrapped in a white cloth, the wife of Turkish President Turgut Ozal appeared a picture of Muslim modesty during a recent pilgrimage to Mecca. But then she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband, ignoring other Islamic customs by which women should be more deferential.
"I am different from the old presidents' wives," Semra Ozal explained in answer to written questions about her role. "I don't sit in the corner and do as protocol dictates. I am an active wife."
Turks may soon find out how active. Semra Ozal, 56, brushes off consistent reports that she plans to become the Muslim world's second prime minister, after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. But she is quick to add that "in the future, I will not hesitate to enter politics if necessary."
The Turkish First Lady gave the same message to Barbara Bush at the White House last month, said a correspondent for Istanbul's Sabah newspaper, who sat in on the meeting. America's First Lady even offered to come and help if Semra Ozal goes on the campaign trail.
"Semra is her own woman in a way that no other president's wife has been," said Nilufer Gole, a professor of international relations and expert on women and Islam in Turkey. "Love her or hate her, we have to admit that she represents the aspirations of a broad cross-section of Turks that the elite does not."
That may be so, but she is clearly not without opponents. A poll earlier this year for the Turkish Daily News found two-thirds of respondents opposed to the idea of her becoming prime minister.
Older Istanbul moneyed classes look down their noses at her as a parvenu, the daughter of a shipyard welder who was a typist when she met her future husband. "She just doesn't have enough class," said one Istanbul professional woman, an importer of luxury accessories.
Others disapprove because Ozal is part of the president's "all-in-the-family" management style, in which relatives seem unusually often to land top jobs in business and government. Turkish caricaturists enjoy depicting the Ozals as would-be Ottoman sultans.
"Palace and dynasty may be the wrong words in our age," said the respected Cumhuriyet newspaper in an editorial. "But there is the word nepotism in the political vocabulary."
Nevertheless, Semra Ozal's position has put her in the center of the forces competing for the soul of Turkey at an important crossroads of its development.
She stands at the confluence of Turkey's two key political currents--one consisting of an old guard elite, dating back to the foundation of the republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, which generally defends Western secularism, and the other composed of resurgent Islamic traditionalists who oppose them.
Mosques are being built at an unprecedented rate in Turkey, whose 56 million people are virtually all Muslim, and women's adoption of the head scarf is becoming more common.
More disturbingly, four political assassinations have been blamed on Islamic terrorists in Turkey so far this year. The last to die, on Oct. 6, was Bahriye Ucok, a 71-year-old theologian and politician who has long warned of an alleged Islamic threat to women's rights and Turkey as a whole.
Semra Ozal publicly identifies herself with secularists who want to keep the strictures of strict Islamic law out of Turkey. "Reaction (Islamic fundamentalism) is a very sensitive and important subject . . . one must stand against the danger," she said in a rare recent interview with Nokta magazine.
A short, plump woman with a taste for fine clothes, she breaks many Muslim cultural taboos. She makes no secret of her liking for whiskey, for example. She very publicly sent flowers to Turkey's first transsexual nightclub star and has only recently given up her old habit of smoking cigars because of poor health, according to newspaper reports.
All this may have won her sympathy from Turkey's powerful, secularist army as well as those politicians, officials and intellectuals desperately looking for someone to take a stand against the rising tide of Islam.
Ozal says the Foundation for the Strengthening and Recognition of Turkish Women, which she founded in 1986, seeks to teach women how to make full use of Western women's rights as endorsed by Ataturk--but never fully digested by Turkey's Muslim society.
As head of the foundation, Ozal briefly published a weekly newspaper, Turkish Woman, in 1988. She also appears regularly on Turkish state television, getting more time than some Cabinet ministers. As First Lady, she officiates at provincial ceremonies and sometimes represents Turkey abroad.
Still, Ozal has critics among more left-wing women's rights movements.