Sunday, October 31, 2010

Merve Kavakci Islam Interview - by Richard Peres

This interview was published on the front page of Today's Zaman, October 31, 2010.




Dr. Merve Kavakci Islam is currently a Lecturer in International Affairs at George Washington University.. She was elected to the Turkish Parliament on April 18, 1999 but was subsequently not allowed to take her oath of office due to protests over her wearing of a headscarf. She holds a Ph.D in political science from Howard University, an MPA from Harvard University and a B.S. in software engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her areas of expertise are the democratization of the Muslim world, contemporary Turkish politics, women in Islam, and Muslim women in politics. She spoke with me by phone on October 26, 2010 from her office in Washington, DC.

I see your name has changed. Congratulations on your marriage, Dr. Kavakci

Thank you. Yes, it is Dr. Merve Kavakci Islam and I am very happy, married to Nazir Cihangir Islam MD, orthopedic and spine surgeon in Istanbul.

And I also understand you have a book coming out?

Yes, in fact today. It’s published by Palgrave-Macmillan and it’s called, “Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Post-Colonial Reading.”

Sounds like an academic book?

Yes, in fact it was my PhD thesis with some modifications.

Can you tell us what the book is about and how it relates to your experience in the Parliament?

It analyzes Turkey’s role model status within the context of Turkey’s treatment of headscarved women, and tries to shed a personal light on the rights of these women and how their lives are affected over the decades.

What does that mean, a “post-colonial reading”?

It basically looks at the Orientalist assumptions within the Turkish context and brings a critique to those Orientalist ideals that are entrenched within the Turkish Republic, and how these Orientalist assumptions were used to marginalize headscarved women from public life. At the end I argue that is a disservice to the republic politically, socially, and economically as well.

So the West was Orientalist and felt itself superior towards its colonies, and in the post-colonial era Turkey followed this although it had no colonial experience in the past?

Yes. The Turkish Republic found its way to modernization at the outset and embraced the Westernization project in a fervent and adamant manner. It also internalized the very Orientalist assumptions itself, that the West was much better than the East and therefore the Turkish people needed to keep up with Western civilization and this process led to the “indigenous-ation” of Orientalist assumptions by the regime. So I name these people Orientalized Orientals and I shed light on how they treated headscarved women and argue that they are actually neither part of the Orient nor Occident – they are caught in-between. They look up to the West and thus legitimize marginalization of headscarved women from society. Of course it is also a misreading by Turkey of the West as well. Here our own Orientalized Orientals, rather than taking in and internalizing the concept of liberties and freedom from the West, import an attitude of bans which is antithetical to what the West really stands for. As a result for an Orientalized Oriental to be “uncovered” supersedes to be educated.

What are some of your feelings about what is happening now in Turkey with renewed public discussions regarding headscarf prohibitions?

The headscarf ban is a cancerous wound that needs immediate attention. It is finally sitting on the national agenda with national coverage and hopefully an in-depth discussion because this is a matter that has been affecting Turkish women’s lives for over 30 years. It’s unfortunate we women fail to attract much attention in the political arena. It’s often been a matter that no one wanted to think about or talk about and try to resolve. Now we are finally addressing what we really want to do with this large population of women who are in a way ostracized from society. They are here, they are not going away, and they are maybe growing in number and they want to participate in public life.

But most articles in the paper say the ban has been in effect since 1997. You are saying it’s really been much longer?

Yes, many of the women who are affected by the ban are not aware of its history. This is not a new thing. It started in 1981 right after the military coup. Prior to that, individual cases were raised. Of course, afterwards, depending on the political environment, and administrators in the universities, the ban was loosened up here and there but it has been part and parcel of Turkish women’s history for the past 30 years.

You are well known in Turkish political history but wasn’t your first goal in life to be a doctor?

Yes, well I suppose you could call me a person who believes in destiny and I am a person who goes with the flow with the terms of her life. I never thought that I would end up in political life. Politics was not one of my passions early on. I come for an academically established family so my parents always wanted to see me in academia and I wanted originally to be a medical doctor and so I entered Ankara University Medical School, one of the top medical schools in the country. However the headscarf ban hit me right there, right then, as a freshman in 1986 and it was really impossible to go to school and sneak into classes in and out with my headscarf so by my second year I had to choose between my convictions and my profession.

And this coincided with your family being subject to the ban as well?

Yes, this is a very sad fact about the headscarf ban in Turkey. It affects generations. It’s not just one small group of people whom you could overlook and tend to ignore. It affects not just one generation but so far in the last 30 years we are talking about three generations. I am a living example of that very fact. My mother had to leave the university when she taught German literature right after the ban was implemented by the coup government and right when I was in medical school I ran into the same problem. I was the second generation. But my parents took this very bold step of leaving everything behind and moving to another country so that I and my two younger sisters could have an education without having to compromise our religious values. And now I look at my daughters who have already graduated from college, two young women with a headscarf , and unfortunately three generations have already been affected.

And yet you decided to come back to Turkey in the 1990’s. Why?

It was important for me to be in my country and to expose my children at an early age to Turkish culture and language and to the rest of our larger extended family. We were also homesick. You cannot stay too long away from where your loved ones are and we came back to Turkey only to find out that I would find my new niche in life, that was politics. Because I was coming back to Turkey with a software engineering degree and in those years I thought what can I do? I am a woman with a headscarf? And therefore the only thing I could do was rear my children and meanwhile with the power of destiny I was asked to volunteer for a political party which I felt was my niche.

When you started working for the Refah Party, what was the role of women?

The Refah Party was one of the first to organize women in large numbers. We hadn’t seen that in the political Islamic tradition and those preceding the party, including the National Salvation Party, but the Refah was different. It was more comprehensive, more embracing and it wanted to utilize women’s effort, half the population of Turkey, and bring them into the political realm. So what was interesting to see was how women, who only had an agency in the family as mothers, wives and sisters, were brought out to the public realm and rendered political agency. I was one of the women who were working at the headquarters. I was overseeing this whole project and was responsible for International Affairs.

When was this?

In 1993, 1994. We were going into the municipality elections.

Did Tayyip Erdogan benefit from women’s involvement in the party?

Yes, definitely. In fact Tayyip Erdogan, who was head of the Istanbul branch of the party and got elected mayor, was one of the front liners who encouraged women’s participation in political life and he worked very closely with the women’s commission and of course benefited by their involvement.

Did this participation by women continued in the Fazilet Party?

Yes. What happened was at the end of the general elections in 1995 everyone conceded that it was the women of Refah who helped bring it to power, and other parties emulated what Refah had done with women involved in one to one interaction with constituents. They took this as a model so it became a focus of study if you will because women’s power was for the first time wielded to bring a party to power. We are talking of about 200,000 women across the country who were responsible, from the headquarters down to the street level, who covered every apartment to get out the message for Refah. So when the Refah went down, Fazilet continued in the same tradition.

Refah Party was very much criticized for not nominating women, for utilizing women’s efforts but not letting them represent themselves in parliament. Ironically, this criticism came from outside, from the Kemalists, who used this to bash the Refah movement. It also came from liberals, it came from women’s groups, it came from leftist groups too, and was a topic of discourse within the party as well. So, when Refah was closed down and Fazilet was established, the question of including women at higher representative places was raised. Fazilet became more of an open party, more democratic. And women from secular life styles came into the party, women like Nazli Ilicak and for the first time in a political Islamic movement women were included in the General Executive Board. But I continued with heading the Foreign Affairs Division of the Women’s Commission. When the early election time came there were pressures from within and outside the party regarding headscarved women on the question of nominations. They had played an indispensable role in the success of the movement. The nomination of women who were secular would be embarrassing without nominations of women with headscarves. After all, this is the Turkish nation and, like it or not, at the time it seventy-three percent of Turkish women wore a headscarf. This is part of our culture, tradition, history, but most importantly part of our religion. The Fazilet Party had a healthy discourse and made the right decision by involving women.

But many writers in the West described your nomination as something that simply came from Erbakan. How do you respond to that?

Well, it is unfortunate. The reality is actually a lot more complicated. Erbakan always had a sway over the Islamic political movement. However at this time he was banned from politics. He had an indirect role in the decision-making body as well, still, nonetheless, the nomination of a headscarved women was discussed at the General Executive Board time after time, people put out their views, the advantages and disadvantages, and a list of the ones who were brought in. I was only one of the 17 women, covered and uncovered who were nominated. It was almost a guarantee that two women with, and two without headscarves were going to be elected but it turned out that I was the only one who got elected, so it is a wrong reading of history to put this on one person. When they started discussing the nomination of Nazli Ilicak and other secular women the hardcore workers who put their lives in this 24/7 over the years started raising their voices that they wanted to be represented. I know this because I worked with these women. We know that we carried the party to power in 1997, and therefore it was very important that we have some sort of representation. So there was a pressure from bottom up, not just at the decision-making body of the party.

Is Islamic women’s support part of AK Party’s support today?

Well, I am just speaking as an outsider now and I am not too familiar with how the Women’s Commission under the AK Party is working currently but by personal experience I know that some of my friends who worked for Fazilet are now working for AKP and still women hold an important, influential part of the party. However, I do not understand the AKP’s position of just wanting to lift the ban at the universities and of course CHP coming from the Kemalist tradition they are even having trouble with that. I do not feel rights can be partially granted. Lifting the ban just for the universities would be similar to eradicating the cancer halfway. Once we are there in the operating theater let’s complete the job and free the body of this cancer.

Do you think there is now a bottom-up movement to bring about headscarved women candidates today, given how some women are speaking out now?

I think it is a similar one. The AKP embraces and values women participation. The prime minister has talked about it as well, including in the political realm, where women’s representation is very low. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is very grim and therefore to include the number of women in the parliament and decision-making bodies is critical and therefore women with headscarves also need more representation.

What are your plans for running for office? Would you consider doing it again?

Women must be represented in higher numbers in all facets of the political machinery. Therefore I believe that more women including women with headscarves must run for office in the next election. After all, all concur that Turkey must democratize itself, and this is one way of doing it. As far as my case is concerned, I have a court decree in hand, that of the European Court of Human Rights that states that Turkey violated free elections in the Kavakci Affair. I was ready to do my job but was never permitted to complete it. Not only was I precluded from carrying the responsibility of representing people of Istanbul but they were also stripped of their right to representation. Because the due process never took place, my seat remained vacant, leaving the constituents deprived of their representation. There is a suspended duty that needs completion.

When you walked into the Parliament in 1999 were you expecting the almost violent response? How did you manage to deal with all that you went through?

Well, I usually know what to expect because I am a woman with a headscarf, and a daughter of a woman with a headscarf. Very early on in the 1970’s when I was a child I had seen my mother being verbally harassed when she was driving a car in Ankara where we lived, where there were very few women who could have a car and drive. This was unfathomable from a Kemalist point of view, and I also had seen many times belittling remarks made at my mother. When I grew up I faced the same thing walking in the streets of Ankara, people shouting at me, “You are too young to cover,” “Why are you covering?” “Are you getting paid from Iran or somewhere?” while I was trying to go about my life. So yes, I was expecting some sort of protest from people who cannot even accept our right to existence on this earth, very intolerant. Looking back I was probably too naive to think that democracy would win, that even if they do not like me they will have to put up tolerating me, but of course that didn’t occur. I don’t think I saw it coming at this very level. I don’t think anyone who was in the Parliament including the protesters knew what was coming. So not only I was shocked but they must have been shocked from the show they put together.

What was it like to campaign, win, and then face what happened in the Parliament?

I was running after my life, my life was ahead of me if you will. I had to deal with all the tabloid’s so-called news about me and my family and attacks from the media while I tried to keep my composure and focus on my campaign as well. I had to make sure that people got to know me and explain what I wanted to do for Turkey so I could receive their votes. It was quite a difficult time. On the one hand I felt very proud to be nominated and elected, as both a woman and a covered woman, because that group needed to be represented. So I had to handle the attacks. I received my credentials from the state, based on that I ran for office, got elected to Parliament and then we had the trouble of taking my oath of office because people in the Parliament chose to protest and unfortunately the presiding president that day, the speaker, couldn’t placate their anger and their wrath towards me. He had to cut the session off. Of 550 people there were around 110 or so, we’re talking about one fifth of the Parliament, protesting against an officially elected member.

When President Demirel later that evening called you an “agent provocateur” how did you feel?

I was shocked and disappointed. I was trying to make sense of what was going on in the Parliament and outside as well. Seeing women on the front lines of that protest was unexplainable for me and the President of Turkey, who very much knew my family, calling me an “agent provocateur” without any knowledge was very disappointing.

The President knew your family?

Of course. His family is from Isparta and my mother’s family is from Isparta. He knows my uncle, calls him by his first name.

So how could he make these statements? Was it coming from the military?

Actually two years later I was informed by a member of the Parliament from my party that actually Demirel carried the message from the military to my party and that this would end up in a military intervention if I were to take my oath of office.

So with the president, prime minister, the press and the military, opposed to you, it was impossible for your party to do anything?

Well, they chose not to do anything.

Getting back to Turkey today, what are your feelings about those who still oppose lifting the ban in the universities?

The surveys are very clear that the majority of Turkish people in large numbers favor lifting the ban, almost 90%, and almost 60% have no problem with a headscarved woman being elected to the Parliament. On the ground, at the people’s level, on the street, we have no problem living together, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, neighbor to neighbor, women with headscarves and women without headscarves. The trouble is up above in institutions. The matter must be approached from the perspective of freedom of expression. If we claim that we are a democracy we must live up to the standards of human rights and liberties with freedom of expression, freedom of religion and equal opportunity in education and at work. At this time and age it is unexplainable to live in a country where you cannot live with your dignity and you cannot have access to education or work because of your religious convictions; particularly in a Muslim country this is unexplainable. And if you look at the opposition, I suppose it has very much to do with the sharing of the public pie if you will. When you look at the rhetoric against lifting the ban, the pretexts, you find remarks belittling Islam and the religion or not respecting peoples’ choice, or you find insinuations of the threat these women will cause to the sharing of the public life and I suppose one can try to understand the mentality when a certain group of people assumed the public sphere for over eighty years. They need to know that there is no other way but to respect and tolerate one another. If we claim we are a democracy we can’t keep ignoring the majority of the female population who lack agency.

*Richard Peres is a writer living in Istanbul and contributor to Today’s Zaman. He is completing a book on Merve Kavakci.

Friday, October 29, 2010

18,000,000 Individuals by Richard Peres

This article appeared in the October 29, 2010 issue of Today's Zaman.

Eighteen Million Individuals

By Richard Peres*

The other night I watched several vociferous headscarf debates on television. Two of them included Merve Kavakci Islam, an individual who was prevented from taking her oath of office in the Turkish Parliament on May 2, 1999.

Yes, an individual. She is also a mother of two young women, holder of a PhD in Political Science, licensed driver in the State of Virginia, graduate of Harvard University, fan of the Dallas Cowboys (American) football team, person who puts three sugars in her Turkish cay, and a devout Muslim who wears a headscarf.

First night of Ramazan, near Istanbul University, 2010
That last characteristic places her in a category that, for some, eliminates her individuality. One of my readers, in response to my last article, wrote that “This ‘sack’ (‘cuval’ in Turkish, referring to a headscarf) is a call for fundamentalism. It fades the future of society and destroys the rights that were gained.” Another wrote that wearing the headscarf “is not a result of a ‘free choice,’ but of a social pressure to conform with the conservative norms promoted by the AKP and its Islamist allies... ... it is neither a sign of sincere piety nor conviction. And on top of it all, it is not even mandated in Islam.”

These comments fall into a deep, dark area, one that cannot be penetrated by laws and regulations, where letters from YOK and even a new constitution would likely have little effect on their perceptions. Not even meeting a woman wearing a headscarf, or having a conversation with one over cay, would make much difference, I know. At the heart of what these people think is the eradication of free will, the marginalization of an entire group of people, and the effort to delegitimize their beliefs, feelings and motives.

Incredible Mind Reading Capabilities

It’s amazing how some people can read the minds of others and know their motives. It appears that this ability exists in spite of the old assumption that the 6.5 billion of us on earth are unique, from finger prints and DNA to personalities and character; that we are influenced by infinite combinations of parents and friends, advertisements and movies, events, accidents and strokes of luck, and more of that unique DNA derived from a multitude of previous generations. All that stuff is simply not true, apparently

And that’s not all.

They seem to actually be telepathic and can detect when your motives aren’t what they seem. They know, for example, when you are not telling the truth, when you have a “hidden agenda.” The AK Party is often accused of having a “hidden agenda.” The most recent accusation was made a couple of days ago by the head of the CHP. He is not alone. Journalists, generals, presidents, American think tanks, and countless others seem to have the ability to know the motives of others, and those whose motives they know are almost always devout Muslims. In fact, these particular mind readers also know more about the Quran and “what is mandated in Islam.” For example, when General Evren banned the wearing of headscarves for students in 1981 via a decree by the National Security Council, he said, “There is no such thing in the religion anyway.” It doesn’t matter that they are neither religious nor academically trained in religion, Islamic Studies, or related fields. What is more important, It doesn’t matter that 18 million women in Turkey seem to disagree with them. They know what these women do not. There are thousands of books on Islam to consult I suppose, but that is not the point. Isn’t it enough to see that a majority of Muslims in Turkey are devout in their beliefs and can interpret the teachings of their religion for themselves?

A Mind of One’s Own

Mind reading is particularly easy if you assume that a person does not have a mind of one’s own. In academic terms this is called “lack of agency.” Because they lack “agency,” there is no need to pay attention to these people because they have all been brainwashed and indoctrinated. This argument was expressed even against educated and accomplished covered women, who managed to become doctors, lawyers and academics by getting their education outside of Turkey. It has been espoused by so many people and cited so many times it is no wonder that my critic assumes it as fact. In her new book, just published by Palgrave-Macmillan, “Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Postcolonial Reading,” Merve Kavakci Islam refers to those who marginalize others in this way as “Orientalized Orientals” who do not believe in democracy if it means “the other” coming to power.

Merve Kavakci Islam has an intimate knowledge of what it is like to be placed in a category regardless of who you really are, regardless of your individuality. President Demirel labeled her an “agent provocateur” on May 2, 1999, a few hours after she walked into the Turkish Grand National Assembly to take her oath of office after being elected by the people of Istanbul’s 1st Electoral District. She was similarly prevented from entering Ankara University Medical School in 1988. Her mother was harassed because of her headscarf, ending her teaching career at Ataturk University in Erzurum six years earlier, after the bans imposed by the 1980 coup. Her father had also been forced to resign as dean of the religious faculty shortly after her mother. With all three Kavakci family members unable to pursue their education or careers, the family emigrated to America. After Merve Kavakci got her degree at the University of Texas she returned to her country so that her children would be raised in Turkey.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Last Thursday, October 21,2010, Merve Kavakci Islam appeared on CNN Turk and answered questions about what happened eleven years ago, what she thinks about the headscarf discussions that have recently emerged in Turkey, and whether she would want to run for office again. It was a far cry from the way she was treated on the Ali Kirca program on May 3, 1999. Perhaps Turkey really is ready for change.

Who Is Pressured?

Facing educational barriers, marginalization and discrimination in employment and public places, the real pressures on covered women are to “uncover.” As Merve Kavakci Islam noted in her interview, some of these women were horribly subjected to persuasion rooms at Istanbul University and others. They suffered immeasurably because of their faith and most were not able to do what she did and get their education outside of Turkey.

In a study done by TESEV in 2006 the following question was asked of covered women: “What would you do if your social circle took off their scarves?” 87.7% of respondents answered “I would still keep my scarf on” and 3.6% said “I would take my scarf off.” Another study done a year later found that 98.6% of women with headscarves said that they have the right to choose their marital spouse, 85.6% said that women should work to be economically independent and 87.5% believe that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities in the family. (“The Covered Reality of Turkey – Turkiyenin ortulu gercegi,” Istanbul, 2007).

In spite of all the pressures against covered women, the data show that they do indeed have a mind of their own. They simply want to get an education, or practice their profession, or represent their constituents – all their constituents – while practicing their faith.

The individuals of the 1st District in Istanbul made up their own minds about who should represent them in Parliament on April 18, 1999.

When individuality is respected and rights are recognized, the headscarf “issue” -- in universities, employment, and even in the Parliament – will finally be resolved.


* Richard Peres is a contributor to Today’s Zaman and a writer living in Istanbul. He is currently writing a book about Merve Kavakci, to be published in the Spring.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Next Challenge for Headscarved Women: Getting A Job, by Richard Peres*

[This article was published in Today's Zaman on October 11, 2010]

The recent signs that all of Turkey’s universities may open their gates and class rooms to headscarved women are welcome and worthy of celebration. Their struggle began more than a generation ago, before the February 1997 coup process, and before the enactment of restrictions after the 1980 coup. The unwritten practice of preventing covered women from studying in undergraduate and graduate institutions across Turkey was first publicized with an incident at Ankara Divinity School involving Hatice Babacan but many non-publicized incidents occurred before then. Before any regulations or “dress codes,” unwritten customs and practices bred fear and discrimination, keeping covered women out of the university gates.

As this struggle plays out over the coming months or even years – we can assume that the issue of taking the university entrance exam will also be addressed -- and covered women start getting an education, a more challenging one will quickly surface. What will these new covered graduates do with their diplomas? Where will they be able to work? How will they apply their skills to increase their income and thereby add to Turkey’s economic growth? How will they gain employment in medical, academic and legal professions to provide needed services to the people of Turkey? They face a number of barriers to employment, many times more difficult to overcome than the university ban.

Difficult Employment Barriers

First, covered women are unable to work as civil servants, which accounts for about two and a half million jobs, according to a 2008 report prepared by Fatma Benli, attorney for AKDER. According to her report, this barrier would have to be addressed legally. Article 70 of the Constitution and Article 48 of the State Civil Servants’ Law sets out the requirements for civil servants without mentioning dress, but in the regulation on personnel dress in the Official Gazette of 25.10.1982 it is stated that “heads shall be uncovered at all times.” Between 1998 and 2002 15,000 women were dismissed or forced to resign because of the enforcement of this policy, and after 1999 covered women were not permitted to take the civil servant entry exam. Moreover, there is no sign from the opposition parties, including CHP, that removal of this restriction would be acceptable.

Second, there is evidence to support the notion that women generally (covered and uncovered) face discrimination in Turkey. Their participation in the workforce was 24.9% in 2006, the lowest in the EU, whose average is 49%. In addition, these women tend to have lower-paying, low status traditional women’s jobs. Half of them do piece or day work, often working part-time and without social security. Keeping such large numbers of women out of the workplace hurts the economy. They make less money and therefore spend less money, lessening their support for businesses and weakening the economy.

Third, private employment sectors raise additional barriers to covered women. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, academics and other professionals are prevented from working due to restrictions of their professional chambers and associations. Headscarved lawyers, including Fatma Benli, are not allowed in court, a legal restriction supported by the Council of State. In addition to the suffering of these professionals, the people of Turkey end up with less services, less doctors, and, once again, a weakening of the economy.

In addition to professionals, covered women face perhaps the largest and most difficult barrier in white collar jobs. Preference is given to uncovered women for good positions in private industry, such as office and information workers, as well as sales positions. The reasons vary from simple prejudice against covered women to organizations not wanting to be viewed as fundamentalist. “Even in sectors for production of commercial goods and services, the employment level of the women who wear the headscarf is low.” (AKDER, November, 2008). A covered friend of mine who had to go to Cyprus for her college degree and is bilingual – she helped me interview Turks for a book I am writing – has been unable for over a year to find a white collar job. As soon as she shows up for the interview, she finds that the position has been mysteriously filled or is no longer available. She has little recourse but to keep trying or emigrate to another country.

The American Example

In America the most important legislation to fight discrimination was signed into law in 1964, approximately 350 years after the first slave ship landed on American shores. The battle to provide civil rights to African Americans was long, violent and almost without end. The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. It was America’s bloodiest war, resulting in 700,000 deaths, or three percent of the total population of the country. But even after that war, which resulted in African Americans being given their civil rights, African Americans still faced a horror story of prejudice and subjugation. Once Northern troops left the South after Reconstruction, anti-black laws and practices blocked African Americans from succeeding for 90 more years, years of blatant segregation, inequality, wholesale discrimination, lynching, and violation of voting rights. It was only after a sustained, non-violent, and integrated civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that laws against discrimination, with real enforcement power behind them, were enacted. Even then, riots broke out across America in city after city in 1967. This resulted in increased funding for anti-discrimination administrative agencies at both the state and federal level. Anyone can easily file a discrimination complaint in the US today based on race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference and other attributes.

In the 1970’s I spent many years as a civil rights worker investigating such complaints of discrimination for a state agency. If a person filing a complaint could show that there was differential treatment compared to another person who was not a minority – or a male in the case of a sex discrimination complaint – the employer had to prove that uniform, non-discriminatory treatment occurred or face the consequences of fines, reinstatement, and changes in personnel policies. Proving discrimination is different from other legal proofs and I even wrote two books about it to help employers end discrimination at work.

The goal of anti-discrimination laws in the US was not to change attitudes against African-Americans nor prejudices against women. Instead, the objective was to change behaviors in the workplace. In the last 50 years tens of thousands of cases have been filed and litigated. The result today is that employers do all they can to avoid preferential treatment of one group or the other. The laws worked and they worked because of tough and free enforcement by administrative agencies. Making discrimination against the law without enforcement, like the laws passed after the Civil War in America, did nothing to end discrimination on its own. It took about another one hundred years for real anti-discrimination laws to be passed and enforced, after a long civil rights movement

Are Headscarved Women Ready?

Is Turkey ready to implement a remedy for discrimination against covered women like the American experience? I doubt it. The reason: the American civil rights movement was the result of a long political struggle that mobilized millions of people throughout the country to bring about change. African Americans and women did not sit back and wait for one political party or another to affect change, or for an agency like YOK to send a letter. They got organized, influenced elections directly, exposed discrimination, fought cases in court, ran for elections, and put real political pressure on state legislatures and the US Congress. Waiting for the government to act was not enough to bring about landmark legislation with real enforcement power and supportive agencies to handle and investigate complaints, and go to court on the behalf of complainants if necessary.

According to Tarhan Erdem there are now 17.9 million covered women in Turkey, an increase from 16.8 million in 2007 and 14.8 million in 2003. The number of uncovered women has decreased from 8.1 million in 2003 to 7.4 million in 2007 to 7.6 million in 2010. (Article in Radikal, October 5, 2010). Think of it: 18 million covered women. That is potentially a very significant political force but one that is not yet fully organized or led. Covered women should consider getting better organized and involved, perhaps even forming their own political party, to influence the passage of anti-discrimination laws. If this force were ever to get organized, on the model of the US civil rights movement, it could bring about the landmark legislation and sweeping changes necessary to enable covered women to work in a non-discriminatory workplace environment. It could bring about “behavior change” in the workplace, compelled not by changing attitudes only but by the law. That type of change would also bring about more integration of covered women into the mainstream of employment and would support non-covered women as well, providing Turkey with a richer and more productive economy and society as a whole.

However, covered women must take their struggle into their own hands and get involved in the political process. Waiting for uncovered women, or men, regardless of political affiliation, to bring about real change, to truly reward their attainment of a university education, will unfortunately not be enough.

* Richard Peres is the author two books on discrimination law published by McGraw-Hill, Inc. and a writer living in Istanbul.,