22 years on, Feb. 28 coup's impact lingers on for victims

Published 01.03.2019 00:13

No coup lasts forever as history teaches putschists. Though a Turkish general famously said that it was "a coup that will last a thousand years," Turkey has managed to overcome the effect of the so-called "postmodern coup" of Feb. 28, 1997. Yet, there is no real closure for victims whose lives were derailed in the process leading to the coup and its aftermath. The luckiest among them got away with a verbal warning, others saw their careers interrupted. Some remain in prison because of crimes for which they claim to be wrongfully accused. Especially for the young female students of the coup era, it remains a traumatic experience that still haunts them.

It started in 1995 when Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party (RP) won the general elections. A veteran politician, Erbakan had been the voice of Muslims in a Muslim-majority country, where even a slight adherence to the faith was viewed as "reactionary." He took office the next year as prime minister in a coalition government with the True Path Party (DYP) after a vote of confidence. Political maneuvers of other parties to prevent the rise of the RP failed and soon, an unprecedented campaign against the RP began. From media outlets to the military, from the judiciary to bureaucracy, the party and its supporters were the targets of a witch-hunt. It did not stop there as Muslims, devout or not, pro-RP or not, increasingly faced the wrath of secular forces everywhere. Performing prayers was enough for anyone in the public sector to be blacklisted. A military or police officer or a low-ranking civil servant could easily face disciplinary action, multiple investigations and dismissal from a job if caught praying or having a wife who wore a headscarf as her faith mandates.

The situation was particularly distressing for girls. 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 a headscarf. The ban was followed by a change to the school admission system that increased the marks needed for university admission for students of imam-hatip or theology-focused high schools. Female teachers were dismissed from their jobs when they refused to remove their headscarves and anti-Islam professors in universities launched the abhorred practice of "persuasion rooms" where headscarf-wearing students would be "persuaded" to remove their headscarf amid threats of expulsion from school. This campaign culminated in the military's notorious ultimatum to the government on Feb. 28, 1997, highlighting what it called the reactionary threat. A few months later, Erbakan stepped down.

The coup was bloodless as the putschists claimed but it left deep scars for its victims who would see their rights reinstated years later. Today, Turkey is a democratic country that sentenced the top military brass behind the 1997 coup to life and a place where the headscarf ban has been removed. Many who lost their rights to work or study won legal battles and returned to their previous jobs. Yet, nothing will give them back the years lost in the process. Nor they can forget how their own state viciously targeted them and took every action to derail their lives.

For women, or young girls as they were then, things took a drastic turn in their lives. Many were forced to go abroad to study where they could attend schools without restriction. As for women who were forced to quit public sector jobs, it would take years to return to their jobs and have equal rights with their peers. Yet, it might take more to restore their trust in a state that deprived them of their citizenship rights.

Nothing good comes from any coup in a country just trying to recover from the 2016 coup attempt by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), but the 1997 coup also had a reverse impact for putschists. Five years after the coup, a party founded by the people, including those who suffered from the coup, would emerge in Turkey's political scene. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has governed the country since and is credited with erasing the traces of the coup, including removal of the headscarf ban and returning the rights of those wronged by the putschists.

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