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.

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