Fourteen years ago, Merve Kavakci, the daughter of a former dean of theology at Ataturk University and a dual Turkish-US citizen, was hounded out of the Turkish Parliament because of her Islamic headscarf. She had just been elected deputy from Istanbul in the April 18, 1999, general elections, running with the now-defunct Virtue Party led by Necmettin Erbakan, the towering figure of Turkish political Islam.
Coming to parliament in blatantly Islamic garb was a red line for staunch secularists, who considered this a serious provocation by religious reactionaries bent on undoing the modern republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The hooting and banging of desks in protest did not end until Kavakci was forced to leave the general assembly.
She must have known the reaction she would get, but nevertheless insisted on arriving in her headscarf, arguing that it was her basic human right to dress according to her convictions. She undoubtedly also felt that her status as an elected deputy would protect her.
The prime minister at the time, the late Bulent Ecevit, a staunch Kemalist, delivered a scathing speech against her that day, when she was also due to take her parliamentary oath. Kavakci had to leave without taking that oath. She subsequently lost the right to be a deputy, ostensibly because she had not declared her US citizenship, despite that she was not the only dual citizen in parliament.
After Kavakci was hounded from Parliament in this ignoble fashion, she smarted from the incident for years, judging by her interviews. The question of headscarves in the legislature turned into a major cause for Turkish Islamists.
Nearly a decade and a half later, on Oct. 21, Kavakci was vindicated when four female deputies from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) walked into the general assembly while the nation watched on live television.
However, despite signs of dissatisfaction and grumblings from within the staunchly Kemalist main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), no storm broke out this time.
Even the head of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, expressed “happiness” later over the outcome, signaling with his remark that Turkey had turned a new page. He knew of course that if the CHP had taken a hard line it would have been isolated, because the Nationalist Movement Party and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party did not oppose the female AKP deputies' scarves on principle, saying it was their right to dress according to their convictions.
So what has happened since 1999 to allow this outcome? The simple answer is that Erdogan and his Islamist AKP happened, by sweeping the elections in 2002 and going on to win two other successive landslide victories, winning 50% of the vote in the last elections in 2011.
The hard line taken by Kemalists in relation to a matter the majority of Turks — who happen to be conservative — are touchy about had rebounded badly. The intolerance of Kemalist politicians had delivered grist to the mill of their Islamist opponents. The CHP had no choice but to pursue a moderate line this time, given the many upcoming elections, starting with local elections in 2014, followed by presidential and general elections.
In interviews, the majority of CHP deputies said they were not against female deputies arriving in parliament with headscarves, but were angry that the AKP had tried to paint them into a corner by using this issue. They said the AKP hoped they would overreact, as in 1999, thus allowing Erdogan to play the victim card for the sake of political gains, and added that they would not fall for such ploys.
CHP deputy Dilek Atagun was among those taking a harder line. She made it clear in interviews that she is against headscarves in parliament, seeing them as a blatant attack on the secular system. Her only act of protest, however, was to take off her jacket and reveal a T-shirt with a portrait of Ataturk as the female AKP deputies entered the general assembly.
Muharrem Ince, the head of the CHP’s parliamentary group, for his part, delivered a fiery speech in the general assembly and attacked the deputies in question. But he did so not over their headscarves but over their low-key presence in Parliament. He recalled that none of them had spoken on any issue in Parliament to date.
To drive his point home, Ince read out a litany of serious issues, with injustices against women topping his list, and cynically expressed his hope that the female AKP deputies would concern themselves with these real issues.
Safak Pavey, a prominent female deputy from the CHP who lost her left leg and arm in a 1996 train accident in Zurich, and who is an award-winning human rights activist, also took the stand to speak on the matter.
In her emotional address, she said the AKP was defending its deputies' rights to wear Islamic headscarves, but it had not supported her right to come to Parliament in trousers because of her physical handicap. She was clearly implying that the AKP was engaged in double standards in working for the rights of its female deputies.
As matters stand, there is no stipulation in the parliamentary dress code that says women cannot wear headscarves in the legislature. It says they must wear modest two-piece suits, preventing Pavey from wearing trousers. Female AKP deputies have vowed to support any changes in the dress code that will enable her right to wear trousers, and indications are that she will have her way.
This alone shows that the issue of headscarves in parliament has actually raised the stakes for Erdogan’s party in terms of proving its democratic credentials and respect for human rights. It is incumbent on Erdogan and AKP strategists to prove that supporting headscarves in parliament is not simply a matter of promoting the Islamic outlook.
They have to show that this is genuinely about democracy and individual liberties. The proof of what they are saying will not be found in words, but in deeds. That is why the jury remains out with regard to what the AKP truly intends here.
As for Kavakci, who is a professor lecturing at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, she may feel vindicated, but her dream of rolling back the red lines of staunch secularists lives on.
“This is a big and positive step,” she was quoted as saying by Hurriyet on Nov. 1 when asked about the incident with the deputies. She added, however, “Resolving the headscarf issue in the judiciary, the Turkish armed forces and the police has to be speeded up.”
That remark is bound to have rubbed hard-line secularists the wrong way again. But the day is not theirs. Turning the clock back 14 years, one may ask whether they are to blame for this. That, however, is one for social historians to answer.
Today, most people are simply happy that the matter was not blown out of proportion this time, while Turkey crossed another sensitive threshold.
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