Is Turkey ready for a headscarved deputy?

With little time left before the general elections in June, Turkey is for the first time openly and extensively debating the prospects of having a headscarved deputy or deputies in Parliament, with various segments of society voicing their support for the election of these women to Parliament.
There is very little time left for political parties to finalize their candidate lists for the elections and submit them to the Supreme Election Board (YSK). Some political parties are discussing whether to nominate headscarved women, and there is growing demand among the people for such women to be in Parliament.

The idea of allowing conservative women to enter Parliament returned to the agenda last fall after Fatma Ünsal, a founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), told Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party’s leader, that she would break off ties with the party and run in this year’s parliamentary elections as an independent candidate if the governing party fails to take steps to allow covered women to become deputies.

Ünsal argues it is high time Turkey starts discussing the prohibition on headscarved women entering Parliament. She drew attention to a report by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which suggests that 70 percent of women in Turkey are expelled from the education, business and political fields due to the notorious ban on the headscarf.

The headscarf ban is a product of the postmodern coup of Feb. 28, 1997, in which the coalition government of the time — led by a conservative political party — was forced to step down. The ban affects university students as well as those working in the public sector. Women with headscarves are not allowed to enter military facilities, including hospitals and recreational areas belonging to the Turkish military.

Bugün daily columnist Ahmet Taşgetiren says headscarved women should be represented in Parliament because circumstances in the country have ripened enough for such a development to take place. The country, he says, has left behind the atmosphere of the postmodern military intervention.

He said Turkey boasts about being one of the countries that granted suffrage to women long before many Western countries; however, being a country where there are no representatives in its Parliament to represent a whole segment of society is a contradiction.

“If a headscarved woman is elected to Parliament, I do not think any political party would dare show the angry reaction shown to Merve Kavakçı. The Kavakçı case remains a shadow over our democracy and it is high time we get rid of this shadow,” Taşgetiren told Sunday’s Zaman.

He also added that the nomination of a headscarved woman such as Ümit Meriç, a professor of sociology, would draw greater support from the public.

Turkey’s memories of its first headscarved deputy, Kavakçı, are still fresh in people’s minds. Kavakçı was elected to Parliament in elections held on April 18, 1999 and represented the now-defunct Virtue Party (FP). When she entered Parliament with her headscarf, she faced a strong protest from other deputies and was eventually thrown out of Parliament. Kavakçı was later stripped of her citizenship and deported to the US, as she held dual citizenship. There has been no headscarved deputy in Parliament since.

To end the absence of headscarved deputies in Parliament, a group of women including journalists, representatives from nongovernmental organizations and activists launched an initiative last week demanding the election of women who wear the headscarf.

The “We want headscar-ved deputies” initiative calls on political parties to nominate headscarved women in the upcoming general elections, warning them that if they do not nominate these women, they will not receive any votes from supporters of the initiative.

Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a columnist from the Habertürk daily and a supporter of the initiative, said there is widespread support and demand from various segments of society for a headscarved deputy; however, she complained about the reluctance of political parties, particularly conservative ones, to take such a step.

“Various segments of society support headscarved deputies — some Islamists, some democrats and those who created problems about the issue in the past have at least have come to the point of not creating any difficulties. However, some circles who support the government’s policies ask, ‘Where did this demand emerge from?’ But there was always such a demand. I think there is no need to remind anyone of this, but the groups that have always been prevented from doing things, systematically left alone and excluded are the headscarved women and men who have such women in their families. However, when these men manage to acquire certain positions, they forget the women,” she says.

As Karaca noted, many segments of society have been voicing their support for women who wear headscarves running for office.

Earlier this month Serap Yazıcı, a renowned professor of constitutional law, called on political parties in Turkey to nominate headscarved deputies to eliminate one of the hurdles before Turkish democracy.

“Considering the fact that we will elect a parliament that will prepare the new constitution and the position of headscarved women is one of the most significant problems in Turkish democracy, I think the new Parliament should give these women, who have thus far been subjected to much oppression, a place,” Yazıcı says.

The Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), which revealed its proposals for the new constitution earlier this week, also joined the ranks of circles that support headscarved deputies in Parliament. TÜSİAD’s draft constitution suggests there should be no ban on headscarves at universities or in Parliament.

Many feared the Republican People’s Party (CHP) would react negatively to the election of a headscarved deputy to Parliament, but CHP Deputy Chairman Gürsel Tekin has eased such concerns, saying on Thursday that the CHP will not react in the same way the Democratic Left Party (DSP) reacted to Kavakçı in 1999. He did, however, rule out the possibility of the CHP nominating any headscarved candidates in the upcoming general elections.
Fatma D. Zibak, TZ