Turkey’s headscarved democracy

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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“Get out! Get out!” shouted dozens of standing lawmakers at a woman ahead of a swearing-in ceremony in a newly elected Turkish Parliament on May 2, 1999.

“This is not the place to challenge the state. Show this woman of her limits!” Bülent Ecevit, then prime minister of Turkey, told the assembly, encouraging deputies of his ruling party to increase the pressure on the woman to leave the assembly.

The frightened woman, Merve Kavakçı, now a professor at George Washington University, had to leave the assembly in tears amid angry boos of deputies, who then thought they were defending Turkish secularism, and as a result, democracy.

The only guilt of Kavakçı, an Istanbul lawmaker, was to wear a headscarf in Parliament. Turkish authorities also stripped her citizenship and shut down her Virtue Party, from which current Turkish President Abdullah Gül was also elected in 1999.

The years have passed, 14 to be exact, since that chaotic scene in Parliament and four headscarved deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered into Parliament without an incident this week. Turkey’s ultra-secular and anti-democratic main opposition party, the Republic People’s Party (CHP), decided to exercise restraint with mild criticism of the ruling party. The goal was, in the words of CHP politicians, not to give AKP a pretext to exploit the headscarf issue.

There is no available study on the number of women who wear headscarves but it is widely believed that six or seven out of every 10 Turkish women wear a headscarf. Secular Turkish authorities long argued that the headscarf is a religious symbol rather than an expression of faith, which is protected under the Turkish constitution. This description of a headscarf allowed authorities to deny headscarved women a right to study in schools and universities, work in public buildings and even attend the graduation ceremonies of their children.

The end of the headscarf problem will spawn an era in which Turkish politicians will have to discuss real challenges facing the country

Mahir Zeynalov

The AKP government’s progress in solving this problem is undeniable. A few years ago, the AKP government fought to lift a headscarf ban in universities, endorsed a law that allowed headscarved women to work in public buildings last month and effectively ended de facto headscarf ban in Parliament last week.

There was no parliamentary by-law that restricted headscarved deputies from entering the building, but it was a taboo that needed to be broken. By breaking this unwritten law, Turkey also effectively halted futile debates over headscarves that have harmfully dominated the nation’s agenda in the past 15 years.

In the past, secular authorities used the headscarf ban to crack down hard on conservative citizens while the current government frequently emphasized the ban to rally its supporters against its opponents. The issue was politicized so much in 2007, even to an extent that the AKP government had to call for an early elections when judiciary and the army, then unfriendly forces to the conservative government, fought to block the election of Abdullah Gül to the presidency because his wife was wearing a headscarf.

I’m not sure if it is correct to say that those who rallied against the headscarves in parliament before are now embracing democracy and tolerance as the opposition in the parliament was almost next to nothing. But it would be correct to say that the opposition has learnt that the headscraf ban is playing right into the hands of the ruling party and it is too risky to favor the ban.

Government now facing real issues

The end of the headscarf problem will spawn an era in which Turkish politicians will have to discuss real challenges facing the country. As the government had consolidated democracy at home and revived the economy in its ten year in rule, the demands of Turkish society have risen exponentially. Reforms that would be unthinkable a decade ago are now becoming a reality, bringing with them a set of new demands that the government seems to be reluctant, or simply unable, to address.

The 1990s was a lost decade for Turkey and recovery in 2000s was too painful. Politicians debated over petty agenda items for months, the headscarf issue being one of them. Now it is over, the government is entitled to quickly address the country’s urgent problems.

As a first step, Ankara could regain its lost appetite for reforms by seriously reconsidering membership negotiations with the EU. The 28-member club is unlikely to accept Turkey as a full member anytime soon but Turkey could opt for a privileged partnership and use the golden opportunity to enhance its level of democracy. Resuming EU accession talks will be a major boost in reviving the government’s interest in further reforms and provide an enabling environment, as well as strong motivation, to put the government’s reformist agenda back on track.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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