by Richard Peres, published in Star Acik Gorus (in Turkish), April 18, 2011
Although they comprise 18 million Turkish citizens, headscarved women have once again been left out of the political sphere by Turkey’s major political parties for the upcoming parliamentary elections. For the supporters of the ruling AK Party, which has repeatedly defined itself as the advocate of democracy in Turkey, this is particularly a major disappointment. How is it possible that the AK Party did not nominate any headscarved candidates when it reportedly conducted polls on voter preferences and public opinion in the provinces? The recent statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc according to the Associated Press says it all: “I am for the election of a deputy with a headscarf in principle, but I am not sure the time has come for that.” Party leaders have also stated the need for a new constitution to bring real change in this area. Others have said they do not want to repeat the “bitter experience” of 1999 and Merve Kavakci.
Memories of the Past
The AK Party’s position is problematic in several ways. First, polls have shown over the last few years that a majority of people are tolerant of freely-elected headscarved women in the Parliament, and the referendum results of last summer demonstrate support of the people for reforms. The secular bloc is opposed but it appears to be clearly in the minority. Secondly, no one has indicated exactly what in the current Turkish constitution or laws prevents headscarved women from serving in the Parliament. The reason is that nothing in the constitution prevents it. The issue may come down to how “secularism” is defined but it is highly unlikely that this phrase will be removed from any new constitution. This is also supported by what really happened regarding the Merve Kavakci incident, which has often been distorted and needs to be revisited. Her being blocked from the Parliament had nothing to do with the constitution. She was not found to have violated any laws or regulations regarding the wearing of her headscarf in Parliament. Moreover, the Parliament never voted on her removal, as required by the Turkish Constitution. She was selectively prosecuted regarding her dual citizenship, which did not legally affect her parliamentary status -- there is no court ruling that links dual citizenship or her loss of citizenship by the Cabinet to her seat in Parliament. In fact, other members of the Parliament, and a past Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, were also dual citizens. For all of these reasons Merve Kavakci won her case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 and was supported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The reason for the AK Party’s reluctance in nominating headscarved women today appears to be fear, either of a Constitutional Court overstepping its bounds and unfairly closing the party, or the military, or both. That fear is reasonable, given how the current leaders of the AKP originated from closed-down Refah and Fazilet parties. They probably have vivid and horrible memories of those years under the 1997 coup-by-ultimatum process in which the full force of the government, military and mainstream press came down hard on them– a constant stream of party closures, imprisonment, and prosecutorial threats. They have stayed in power by not crossing certain boundaries and seem unwilling to risk everything for the headscarf issue.
The AK Party’s Debt to Headscarved Women
Headscarved women played a major role in the election of Tayyip Erodogan as Mayor of Istanbul In 1994. These women were also a major reason, if not the most important reason, for the election of Refah candidates for Parliament in 1995, including Bulent Arinc, deputy of Manisa, and the eventual rise of the Erbakan government in 1996
I recently interviewed Sibel Eraslan for a book on Merve Kavakci. In the 1990’s she was the head of the Refah Party’s Women’s Commission in Istanbul and later she would help manage Merve Kavakci’s campaign and a key person in mobilizing the women’s vote for the 1994 elections, gaining the powerful municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara. She led a force of 18,000 thousand women workers who met in just one month with 200,000 women voters. Yet after the victories in March, 1994, Sibel was not given any position within the newly elected Welfare party administration and was expected to go back home. Such was the plight of Sibel Eraslan and other headscarved women workers during this time, a key part of the party’s success yet treated in a patriarchal and unequal manner compared to men. By 1999 headscarved women working for Refah’s successor, the Fazilet Party, no longer wanted to be excluded from nominations for the Parliament, especially since the Party was now including secular women in the party administration, such as Nazli Ilicak and Oya Akgonenc, and considering them to be nominees. Thus the party leadership responded and put several headscarf candidates on its list for the 1999 elections, including the 30 year old head of the Fazilet Party’s Women’s International Commission, Merve Kavakci (now Merve Kavakci Islam). Necmettin Erbakan had the courage to support headscarf candidates, which was not supported by party moderates, including the current AKP leadership, because they felt it would endanger the party. They were correct and Fazilet was closed down.
These women also have memories that are just as powerful and just as bad as the AKP leadership. The difference is that the AKP leadership is in power while headscarved women remain outside of the political sphere. In addition, except for last summer’s YOK memo that granted them entrance into Turkey’s universities, they are still blocked from teaching, blocked from many professions, blocked from appearing as lawyers in court, blocked from being public employees, and suffer widespread discrimination in employment which, as recent reports show, come from both religious and secular employers
Waiting for the AKP to solve this issue does not appear to be a viable option. Turkey may not want to relive 1999, but to truly become democratic it must face the past and overcome it in the present. Abdullah Dilipak told me that Merve Kavakci hangs over the AK Party like the sword of Damocles. Certainly, it appears that for now he is correct
One positive step may be to change the Law of Political Parties and requiring party elections for candidates, letting the members of the parties themselves decide, as is the case in other countries. These “primary” elections are a key first step to democratizing Turkey’s political parties, enabling the will of their voters to be heard, ending accusations of unfairness and misrepresentation, despite some of its disadvantages. It would likely end the exclusion of headscarved women from the democratic process, support all women and, in fact, all voters for all parties. It may also bring fairness to the practice that nominates certain individuals but puts them low on the list of candidates, essentially preventing their election.
Another option is to withhold their vote from parties that did not nominate any headscarved candidates, along the lines of the movement called, “No headscarf-wearing candidate – No votes.” This could be effective in helping them wield influence which, after all, is what politics is all about. At the same time they could focus on supporting the headscarved candidates who may be running for electable seats and those running independently. Long term, however, they need the major parties to affect change and to bring about dozens of headscarved candidates to the Parliament, representative of their presence in the population.
Finally, the 10 percent rule on party representation in Parliament has to end. The reason is simple: under the present system a party with less than a majority of votes can gain a majority of the seats in Parliament. Yes, this brings stability, but at what price? Presently, the AKP can ignore headscarved women and not suffer political consequences. Turkey cannot be called a democracy a large part of its population is excluded from representation in the Parliament