In May 1999, when Merve Kavakci of the Islamic Virtue Party walked onto the General Assembly floor of the Turkish parliament wearing a turban (a certain style for Muslim women to cover their hair), the majority of parliamentarians banged on their desks in protest and shouted, “Get out!” Then-Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who was known for his politeness and even temperament, also rose to his feet in anger and said, “This is not a platform to challenge the state.”
Fourteen years after that incident, and after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected to power three consecutive times since 2002, the parliamentary equation has changed. Today, Oct. 31, Sevda Beyazit Kacar, Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey, Nurcan Dalbudak and Gulay Samanci walked onto the General Assembly floor in parliament with their heads covered.
They were not confronted by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), telling them to leave the floor, or by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Nevertheless, there was resistance to the presence of these female deputies on the parliament floor.
Safak Pavey, a female CHP deputy, said, “The relationship between turban and freedom represents the dilemma that is one of freedom of religion and religious oppression." Muharrem Ince, CHP group chair in parliament, agreed. “The point we reached today is not a debate about freedom, dress code or democracy. This is an attempt of a villain to create new victimhood debates,” he said. “The prime minister says covering hair for women is a religious obligation. Does the religion have only one rule [for women to obey]?”
Put simply, these four AKP deputies wrote history today. With them, the AKP government has made it all possible, with its democratization package announced last month and allowing women wearing head coverings to work in parliament, state institutions and public universities.
The opposition may be wise to let this go unchallenged. The opposition can observe whether the AKP government will turn the page on discussions of the victimhood of women who wear head coverings, closing this issue once and for all, or whether it will come up with new demands and expectations in the name of fulfilling one’s religious obligations — especially those of women. Realistically speaking, there is nothing at this stage that the opposition can do or say to change the winds in its favor on this issue.
But, the question then may be whether the attendance of women deputies with their turbans at parliament will help to normalize this in the nation, or help strengthen its state of the union. The answer could be tricky, as many in the opposition believe that there are ideological elements in the AKP who resent the early days of the foundation of this republic.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. On Twitter: @TurkeyPulse