Twenty years after the phrase “know your place” was voiced against a women for the first time in the Turkish Parliament, the same sentence was used last week, once again in the same context. Turkey has been lingering in a never-ending debate between ultra-secularists and conservatives who want to preserve their religious identity.
Last week’s incident took place during the general assembly of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) when Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Group Deputy Chair Özlem Zengin responded to the opposition’s criticism regarding foreign policy, recalling former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s seemingly weak position during a meeting in Washington with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999. With this reminder, the main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) Group Vice President Engin Özkoç raised his voice stating, “This woman should know her place.”
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Zengin said, “The problem is that they [ultra-secularists] are not convinced. Even though so much time passed, this [discrimination] has not yet reached zero. Even though bans have been lifted and there is a kind of tolerance, in times of stress or conflict these realities reappear onto the surface, as it was in my case,” she said referring to a past headscarf ban.
The language that was used during the debate was heavily criticized and ended with Özkoç apologizing to Zengin. This incident echoed similarities to an incident that came two years after the coup of 1997, which had seen a decade-old ban on the headscarf reintroduced, resulting in a female deputy in Parliament not be allowed to take her oath at a swear-in ceremony in 1999.
The coup of Feb. 28, 1997, when the ban of religious acts reached its peak, came two years after the Welfare Party (RP) won the general elections in 1995, and secular circles in Turkey saw the party as a movement that sought to bring the country under religious law.
Hence, the situation in 1997 was particularly distressing for women. A decade-old ban on the headscarf was suddenly re-enforced and female students, from high school to university, were barred from attending classes with the headscarf on. Female teachers were dismissed from their jobs when they refused to remove their headscarves and the abhorred practice of "persuasion rooms" was launched in universities where headscarf-wearing students would be "persuaded" to remove their headscarves amid threats of expulsion from schools. Women wearing headscarves were also not permitted to work.
Later on, many who lost their rights to work or study won legal battles and returned to their previous jobs yet the years lost in the process could not be compensated. After the military intervention of Feb. 28, Merve Kavakçı, the first female deputy wearing a headscarf was elected from the Virtue Party in 1999. However, she was not allowed to take her oath in the swear-in ceremony for Turkey's Grand National Assembly by the prime minister at the time Bülent Ecevit and lawmakers, mainly members of the Democratic Left Party (DSP). The female deputy was kicked out after being told the same phrase "know your place" – the same thing Zengin was told.
This incident was seen as the deprivation of a person from their right to elect and be elected, a centerpiece of democracy. The suppression of women continued for a long time and even though new measures have been taken to reverse the period when women were left feeling like “inferior subjects,” aggression toward them continues as some circles are disturbed by the change of social norms.
Recalling this incident from 20 years ago, Istanbul Deputy Ravza Kavakçı Kan, who is also Merve Kavakçı’s sister, told Daily Sabah: “On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we can say that violence not only comes physically but also psychologically. This kind of psychological violence was used against women with humiliation, abasement and with words like ‘coup plotter.’ We hope that we have left these days behind.”
Saying that the situation regarding Zengin was an unfortunate situation for the CHP, Kavakçı added, “The party seems to embrace everyone, especially during election periods; they act like they are on the side of those that were wronged. Yet, a particular group within them is acting differently. One would wish that their change is sincere.”
Indicating that there is a rise in misogyny, Fatmanur Altun, head of the Turkish Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), stated that the attacks on women with headscarves is another aspect of this problem. “This problem is not unique to Turkey, throughout the world with the rise of Islamophobia, women with headscarves are the main target as the headscarf is visible,” Altun added, explaining that racism has peaked in the last 10 to 15 years, especially in the West.
Similarly, wearing a headscarf seems to be a problem in some ultra-secularist circles as people are targeted in higher positions such as in white-collar jobs like politicians, doctors or lawyers compared to people with headscarves in low-income positions. “In the last two months, 12 women with headscarves were attacked and these might not be even the real numbers as these are only the reported ones. The real number is probably much higher,” Zengin said, recalling what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, said - namely, that women should make their own decisions. “We will continue to voice this and try to raise awareness,” she said.
Recently, assaults against women with headscarves have once again peaked, both in Turkey and throughout the world. In Turkey, where a culture of piety exists and women who wear headscarves as part of religion and their identity is in the majority, a false perception of rigid laïcité exists, which is perceived to require the absence of all religious symbols exists. In Turkey, 68% of women wearing the headscarf are discriminated against.
The state’s organized systematic discrimination and bans on people 20 years ago have disappeared to a large extent since the AK Party came into power, yet hate speech and bans on wearing headscarves in some private sector companies continues.
Following the incident in Parliament last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed Özkoç’s comment, calling on Parliament to punish him. “CHP officials, inspired by [Bülent] Ecevit who shouted ‘silence this woman’ to our Ambassador to Malaysia [Merve Kavakçı] in the past, impudently insulted our group deputy chairwoman. We will not allow such insolence,” he said.
Erdoğan added that the issue cannot be glossed over with a “bare apology.”
“There are many sociological, political and psychological reasons as to why this group of people try to stereotype women. People have lived through a period of discrimination which has changed during the last 17-18 years through the change brought with the AK Party. Now, people do not get discriminated against because of their religious beliefs, whether they are non-believers or not,” Kavakçı said, adding that democratization has been experienced in various aspects and that she hoped such sentences including discrimination will not be voiced again.
Emphasizing that polarization in society is trying to be achieved, Altun said that the problem of attacks against women with headscarves has a deep history in Turkey and that this problem is artificial. “We can see that especially on social media, this polarization is widespread. Thus it is no surprise that these people that have been radicalized get more aggressive and attack people. I think that this has to be prevented with laws and people have to be told that this constitutes a sectarian crime.”
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