Friday, August 19, 2011

Headscarved Women Take the Lead towards Democracy

By Richard Peres, published in Today's Zaman, March 27, 2011

According to Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, authors of “Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation,” transitioning to democracy will not occur until the government “de facto” has the authority to generate new policies and does not have to share power “de jure” with any other group. In the case of headscarved women candidates for Parliament, there is still nothing in the law that prevents a covered woman from running for office or taking her oath of office. The real issue is who “de facto” has the power in Turkey?

A new poll revealed that “a full 78.1 percent of respondents said they would favor the idea of women being allowed to become deputies with their headscarves.” (March 25, 2011, Today’s Zaman) There are 18 million headscarved women in Turkey today. If they are prevented, de facto or de jure, from running for office, then Turkey cannot claim to be a full democracy by any accepted Western definition of the term, even minimally because elections are not completely free with a large part of the population excluded from representing the people.

Some courageous women are trying to change things, to push Turkey across red lines and barriers that have existed for too long. Will Turkey’s political parties follow the old course or take the lead? Time is running out for them to provide their list of candidates to Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK).

Not waiting for the AK Party

Unfortunately, there are no positive indicators that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will nominate headscarved women. In fact, all the signs are the opposite. By not taking a leadership role in this area, the AK Party cannot be seen as the true advocates of a new democracy in Turkey. Only fear appears to stand in their way. Can the AK Party overcome it?

Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. She was all alone in the racist deep south of America before the civil rights movement, with centuries of laws and customs against her and only the courage of her convictions to guide her. That courageous act set in motion the US civil rights movement and eventually the election of Barack Obama more than 50 tumultuous years later.

About 12 years ago the Turkish equivalent of Parks, Merve Kavakçı, walked into Parliament to take her oath of office. She also was very much alone. The entire secular bloc attacked her, selectively and unfairly prosecuting her. No vote ever occurred in Parliament to remove her as set forth in the Constitution, which is why she won her case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). However, her seat remained empty.

Many other “Merves” are coming forth: Ayşe Böhürler, Fatma Bostan Ünsal, Ceyda Karan, Yasemin Göksü, Nihal Bengisu Karaca, Hilal Kaplan, Cihan Aktaş, Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal and Sibel Eraslan are taking leadership roles to make it happen. The new campaign is called “If not now, no votes from us,” or “Başörtülü aday yoksa oy da yok!” While they are pressing political parties to support them, they are not sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring but organizing and moving forward on their own.

Why now? The reason is obvious: This is a clear issue of electoral enfranchisement, central to democracy, conveying a belief in the people’s will that is sweeping the Middle East now. It seems that the timing is not only right but perfect for headscarved women to take their legitimate place in Turkey’s democracy, establish the real “Turkish model” that so many other countries in the Middle East seem to be genuinely yearning for.

What about the HAS Party?

Perhaps the AK Party does not want to take the risk. Party closure threats and tutelage are certainly possible. If no political party is willing to test the barriers to a headscarved candidate, that alone makes a case for Turkey not being democratic. Democracy requires political will and freedom to make choices without worrying about barriers, whether direct or indirect, whether by law or in practice, both de jure and de facto.

Certainly the environment in 1999, during the height of the “coup process,” was not the right time for a covered candidate to get elected without being blocked by the establishment from taking office. Should this fact set a precedent moving forward, forever blocking Turkey’s transition to full democracy? The issue is not only one of fairness and democracy. Excluding 18 million people from participating in governing is not practical or efficient for it excludes the talents and contribution of a big part of the population. They represent a vast, unused resource for Turkey, socially, politically and economically.

Who will take the first step? It may be that the founding members of the AK Party have too many bad memories of how the Virtue Party (FP) was treated in 1999 to escape from the past. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has flirted with a new direction and has promised to resolve the headscarf issue for many years. Are they bold enough to change direction and gain a bigger constituency?

What about the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), formed last year as a splinter from Necmettin Erbakan’s Felicity Party (SP). At its congress last November after his formal election as party leader, Numan Kurtulmuş said: “The HAS Party is at the center of the nation. The designations of others such as leftists or rightists are not binding for us. What binds us are our moral values and conscience. What brings us together is our will for justice and siding with the oppressed.” I cannot think of a group more worthy of their support and more pressing regarding the “moral values and conscience” of Turkey than its headscarved women.

The past does not have to dictate the future. When I see covered and uncovered young women having coffee together in a café, or enjoying themselves at a Tarkan concert or walking arm in arm down the street, I am optimistic about the future. Perhaps the youth of Turkey, the third largest number of Facebook users in the world, will take the next step.

New voices of democracy

What happened in Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya had nothing to do with political parties. The sheer power of the people’s voice made itself heard. No one predicted it, not journalists, political scientists, heads of state, foreign ministers or party leaders, whether covert or visible. Their courage was startling, facing not just criticism and legal threats, but bullets.

If the AK Party follows its process for selecting parliamentary candidates, it should hear that voice and respond accordingly. On March 19 Mustafa Ataş, the head of the AK Party’s election coordinating center said, according to Today’s Zaman, “First, separate surveys will be conducted in 85 voting districts in order to identify the local organizations’ preferences.” Certainly the party wants to pick candidates who have local support. Is there any doubt that covered candidates have that support today? They did 12 years ago, even during the repressive atmosphere of the coup process. Tens of thousands cheered for Kavakçı at rallies in İstanbul’s 1st District, with women chanting, “We are women, we are strong and we exist.”

That voice will only get stronger in 2011 in light of a more open society and increased freedom of expression compared to 1999. Women who do not receive the nomination of a particular party will run as independents. Only when the de facto and de jure barriers are overcome will Turkish democracy finally arrive in Parliament.

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