Turkey breaks another taboo with headscarved deputies in Parliament
Amid fears that tension in Parliament would rise over several Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies wearing headscarves while attending parliamentary sessions, four headscarved deputies walked into Parliament on Thursday and faced no words of protest or anger from opposition parties, marking the end of a long-standing ban on the wearing of headscarves in the chamber.
Four AK Party deputies, Sevde Bayazıt Kaçar, Gönül Bekin Şahkulubey, Nurcan Dalbudak and Gülay Samancı, announced that they had decided to cover their heads in line with their religious beliefs after performing hajj in Mecca in October. The deputies said they would attend parliamentary sessions with their scarves on because there are no regulations banning the wearing of headscarves in Parliament and Turkey has recently allowed the wearing of headscarves by public employees, except for members of the judiciary and military. These deputies attended Thursday’s session of Parliament while wearing their scarves.
There was a huge crowd in Parliament on Thursday and the press chamber was filled with journalists wanting to report on the historic occasion. Controversial and conflicting statements from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) throughout this week, which hinted that the party may prevent the headscarved deputies from taking part in the parliamentary session, had raised concerns in society on whether Turkey would witness the same treatment received by Turkey’s first headscarved deputy, Merve Kavakçı, in Parliament in 1999.
Amid angry protests and boos, Kavakçı was forced out of Parliament for wearing a headscarf during her swearing-in ceremony.
Bülent Ecevit, the prime minister at the time, addressed the packed assembly, saying, “This is not the place to challenge the state. Inform this woman of her limits!” while half the chamber stood shouting: “Get out! Get out!” to the seated Kavakçı.
Kavakçı left in tears. She was not only dismissed from Parliament but was also stripped of her citizenship. Moreover, the Constitutional Court considered her wearing a headscarf in Parliament as evidence of a violation of secularism in the closure case of her party, the Virtue Party (FP) in 2001.
Yet, Turkish Parliament showed a pro-freedom stance toward headscarved deputies on Thursday, invalidating fears of the repetition of the Kavakçı incident.
Following the beginning of the parliamentary session, deputy group chairmen of each party in Parliament made short speeches in which they expressed their views about the existence of headscarved deputies in Parliament.
Speaking on behalf of the CHP, Muharrem İnce, the party’s deputy group chairman, received huge applause from the AK Party ranks when he said all women, either wearing headscarves or not, are his sisters.
But he maintained that the debate on the headscarved deputies is not a debate on democracy and accused the government of trying to create a perception of victimization in regard to these deputies.
He said his party will not allow the AK Party to capitalize on headscarved women to get more votes at a time when elections are drawing near. Turkey will hold local elections in March 2014.
The deputy group chairperson of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Pervin Buldan, said in her speech that her party is very pleased about the settlement of the headscarf problem in Parliament. She congratulated all the parties for not allowing the repetition of the Kavakçı incident to occur under the roof of Parliament.
She said freedoms should be seen as a whole and there should be no restrictions on identity, religious belief or culture.
Buldan called on women to come together and increase their strength to address not just headscarf freedom but all restrictions imposed on women.
On behalf of her party, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Deputy Group Chairperson Ruhsar Demirel said allowing headscarved deputies in Parliament was a step that needed to be taken to ensure gender equality and equal representation.
She said there was actually no ban on the wearing of headscarves in Parliament’s bylaws and it is thanks to Turkey’s democratization that the de facto ban has been abolished.
“We did not experience the problems faced during Merve Kavakçı’s time and we will continue our work in Parliament with our friends,” she said.
CHP Deputy Chairperson Şafak Pavey also delivered a speech during Thursday’s session in which she criticized Turkey’s record on human rights and women rights.
Appealing to the headscarf-wearing deputies, she said she had not heard them remark on the violation of the freedoms of others and called on them to also be sensitive to the rights and freedoms of people from different backgrounds.
Speaking on behalf of the government, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said the parliamentary deputies did not fulfill the expectations that there would be tension in Parliament due to the presence of some of them wearing headscarves. He congratulated Parliament’s members for showing democratic maturity.
“There has been no negative reaction in society about the use of headscarves [in Parliament], but there have been both positive and negative reactions in politics. There are some people who expected to hear ugly remarks and conflict here; you foiled their expectations. … I have very much appreciated the absence of these things in Parliament today considering a fight was expected to break out [over the headscarved deputies],” Arınç said.
In remarks after Thursday’s session, one of the headscarved deputies, Kaçar, said she was not anxious to enter Parliament in a headscarf.
“This is a very beautiful atmosphere for Turkey. Everyone said what they wanted in a democratic way,” she told reporters.
In the meantime, MHP’s Oktay Vural called on other parties to gather for a meeting next Tuesday to work to eliminate restrictions on female deputies wearing pants during parliamentary sessions.
His call came following remarks from the CHP’s Pavey, who in her speech complained that she had been prevented from wearing pants in Parliament due to an article in the bylaws that bans female deputies from doing so. Pavey is disabled and has a prosthetic leg. Wearing a skirt leaves her prosthetic leg exposed.
Following her election to Parliament in the 2011 general elections, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek said Pavey would be allowed to wear pants to sessions of Parliament.
“Mrs. Pavey can attend General Assembly sessions in pants. Nobody will prevent this. The deputy parliament speakers will also ignore this,” Çiçek had said back then.
However, Pavey later told the press that she was not uncomfortable having her prosthetic leg exposed and that she did not want the parliamentary bylaws to be amended just for her.
In her speech on Thursday, Pavey said as a lawmaker, she will not wear pants in Parliament unless the bylaws are amended.