Hope for headscarved deputies dashed after parties fail to reach scarf compromise

Published 25.10.2010 12:40

The failure of political parties to reach a consensus on parliamentary steps to lift the headscarf ban at universities has led to disappointment among thousands of students who have been waiting for a solution to the deadlock surrounding the Muslim garment as well as conservative women who have long dreamt about becoming deputies and entering Parliament with their headscarves.

Civil society leaders believe Turkey is still far from a political and legal compromise on headscarf freedom. For them, Turkey has to probably wait for many years to see a headscarved deputy in Parliament. "Political parties always favor ideology when they are supposed to make a choice between ideological preferences and freedoms. … It is currently not possible to guess when the headscarf will enter Parliament, but we should bear in mind that the preparation of laws is a political process. In other words, politicians take action in line with demands coming from the nation. The stronger we voice our demands, the more liable politicians will feel themselves to act," stated Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, president of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), when speaking to Sunday's Zaman. The idea of allowing conservative women to enter the Turkish Parliament returned to the agenda last week after Fatma Ünsal, a founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), threatened Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, also the party leader, with breaking off ties with the party and running in next year's parliamentary elections as an independent candidate if the governing party fails to take steps to allow covered women to become deputies. Ünsal argued that it is high time Turkey started discussing the prohibition on headscarf-wearing women entering Parliament. She drew attention to a recent report by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which suggests that 70 percent of women in Turkey are expelled from the education, business and political fields due to the notorious ban on the headscarf. "Seventy percent of Turkish women have the right to vote in elections. However, they do not have the right to get elected," she complained. The headscarf ban is a product of the postmodern coup instigated on Feb. 28, 1997, in which the coalition government of the time -- led by a conservative political party -- was forced to step down. The ban affects university students as well as those working in the public sector. Women with headscarves are not allowed to enter military facilities, including hospitals and recreational areas belonging to the Turkish military. Parliamentary efforts to date to get rid of the controversial ban have failed. Representatives from the ruling party and the opposition parties held meetings last week to seek a consensus on steps to eliminate the ban on university campuses, but the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) refused to cooperate with the AK Party unless its "preconditions" are met. "What we see about the CHP is really dramatic. The party's leader [Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu] pledged to help lift the ban during party rallies [before the Sept. 12 referendum], but his party started to mention preconditions when parties geared up to discuss the ban in Parliament. This is breaking one's promise and is a problematic approach," Ünsal added. According to Neslihan Akbulut, the secretary-general of the Women's Rights Association against Discrimination, the doors of Parliament have remained closed to most women due to their attire. "When we look at Parliament, we see a serious problem of representation. The biggest problem in representation is the 10 percent election threshold. In addition, 70 percent of the female population in Turkey is not allowed to enter Parliament due to the headscarf ban. Women wearing the headscarf are neither elected to Parliament nor allowed to participate in any voting other than casting a vote at the ballot box," Akbulut stated. She was referring to a recent decision by the Supreme Election Board (YSK) that banned headscarved women from entering party commissions to observe and supervise elections near ballot boxes. On Sept. 12, the day the referendum was held, the YSK announced that it did not allow anyone wearing the Muslim headscarf to stand as an observer at the ballot box. The board said the ballot box was considered part of the "public sphere" and thus covered women could not serve as ballot box officials. "The right of covered women to elect and get elected is being forcefully seized [due to the headscarf ban]. This situation opens the representative identity of Parliament to dispute," Akbulut noted. For her, some circles are trying to maintain the deadlock surrounding the headscarf. "They say the headscarf will 'infiltrate' Parliament. With such an argument they seek to hide that women are actually deprived of their democratic rights," she added. Turkey's memories of its first headscarved deputy, Merve Kavakçı, are still fresh in people's minds. Kavakçı was elected to Parliament in elections held on April 18, 1999 and represented the now-defunct Virtue Party (FP). When she entered Parliament with her headscarf, she faced a strong protest from other deputies and was eventually thrown out of Parliament. She was later stripped of her citizenship and deported to the US, as she held dual citizenship.

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