Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"No Headscarves, No Vote!"

Merve Kavakci in 1999, shortly before being expelled from parliament.

Nicholas Birch has an excellent piece on Eurasianet about a new civil society campaign geared to promote the election of women who wear the headscarf and the ambivalent response the campaign has received from conservatives, including the AKP. An excerpt:
Turkish women's groups have been traditionally divided along ideological lines. But they are uniting behind the initiative, launched in March by a non-partisan group called Women Meet Halfway, to have women who wear headscarves placed high enough up on party lists so that they stand a decent chance of being elected.

"No headscarves, no vote," shouted sixty-odd women who gathered outside the parliament building in Ankara on April 8. "As it stands, our democracy is half-baked", said the group's spokeswoman, Nesrin Semiz. "Two-thirds of Turkish women cover their heads. Not one of them has a seat in parliament."

The campaign is generating an ambiguous reaction from an electoral constituency that, at least at first glance, would appear to be a natural ally: religiously conservative men.

In general, the conservative press is trying to ignore the campaign. Those columnists who have addressed it have tended to be disparaging. A columnist in the mass-market conservative daily Zaman, Mehmet Kamis, has described the headscarf issue as "meaningless."

"These elections are a vital opportunity for Turkey to create the foundations of civilian democracy," he wrote on April 2. "Why put that at risk with all this talk of headscarves." Kamis was alluding to the main plank of the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) election campaign: the promise of a new "civilian" constitution.

The AKP has Islamist roots, and the wives of some top party leaders wear headscarves in public, but those same party leaders make no secret of wanting to win more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Such a total would allow the AKP to push through a new constitution on its own. Party leaders worry that strong backing for the headscarf issue could complicate their electoral goal. Yet, they also know that distancing themselves from the issue could create political problems.

. . . .

Supporters of Women Meet Halfway's campaign think fears of a repeat of 2008 or 1999 are unfounded. The Constitutional Court, which narrowly voted against closing the AKP in 2008, has since been packed with justices sympathetic to the governing party, campaign member Hilal Kaplan points out.

A secular party that lobbied hard for the court’s intervention against the AKP in 2008, meanwhile, has signaled that it will take no action, if women wearing headscarves are elected to parliament.

In any case, says Fatma Bostan Unsal, a founding member of the AKP who wears a headscarf and has put her name forward as a candidate, there is nothing in parliamentary regulations about headscarves -- only a requirement for women to wear "suits." Turkish courts stripped Kavakci of her position in 1999 not because of her headwear, but because she had become a US citizen "without the permission of the Turkish authorities."

Unsal says she will run as an independent if the AKP doesn't support headscarf-wearing candidates. With just under nine weeks to go until Turks go to the polls, she still doesn't know what colors she will be presenting herself under: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the arbiter of who rises and who falls in the AKP, is keeping his options wide open.

But a ferocious attack last week on the headscarf campaign by one of Turkey's most prominent Islamist intellectuals has led some women to wonder whether all the high-minded talk of the need to protect the AKP from a repeat of 2008 isn't hiding something rather less savory. Writing in Zaman on April 2, Ali Bulac described the campaign’s leaders as "fifth columnists ... working from the start to destroy the Islamist movement from within."

Supporting the use of the headscarf is "a religious obligation of every believing man and woman," Bulac went on. But the campaigners "look down their noses at their own neighborhoods," and "have stripped the headscarf of its religious significance, reducing it to a simple issue of human rights inspired by feminism."
Hilal Kaplan has written in Taraf and elsewhere that it is a shame that covered women, which constitute a considerable percentage of people in Turkey, do not have even one representative in parliament.

Bulent Arinc said in February that while having a covered woman in parliament was desirable, no was not the time. Apparently the AKP as a whole agreed with him. Only one covered woman was nominated for parliament, and her name placed very low on the party list, lessening her chances of getting elected.

The last candidate who donned the headscard to be elected to parliament, Merve Kavakci in 1999 from the Virtue Party, was expelled from parliament and eventually stripped of her Turkish citizenship on the grounds that she had not disclosed her United States citizenship.  In 2007, Kavakci won a case at the European Court of Rights, which determined her expulsion from parliament was a human right violation.

For more on female electoral candidates and the headscarf, click here for a piece I wrote on the issue in 2008.

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