On Thursday 31 October four female MPs from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) entered the General Assembly chamber at the Turkish parliament wearing the religious headscarf.
Fellow JDP parliamentarians congratulated the women and posed for numerous pictures ahead of what was expected to be a tense session.
During the days leading up to the General Assembly session, the secularist Republican People’s Party (RPP) leadership held several meetings to decide on a course of action. The day before, RPP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had warned the Republican parliamentary group not to overreact in case tensions arose.
Meanwhile, hundreds of reporters and cameramen camped outside the General Assembly chambers – a common sight on Tuesdays, when party leaders address their respective parliamentary groups, but an extremely rare event for a Thursday – to inform the country of every detail.
In the end, it took a few hours to make the country’s once indisputable headscarf ban part of history.
News stories and political gossip in Ankara made frequent references to what happened at the General Assembly chamber some 14 years ago when Merve Kavakçı, an MP-elect from the Islamist Virtue Party, attempted to take the parliamentarian’s oath while wearing her headscarf and was forcibly removed from the chambers. Ostracised by the mainstream media, Ms. Kavakçı subsequently faced trial and was stripped of her Turkish citizenship.
Commenting on the infamous headscarf crisis in 1999, a prominent Turkish journalist once wrote that Kavakçı should relocate to Iran if she would like to wear the hijab, and to Afghanistan if Iran’s religious credentials proved inadequate.
This journalist was not alone in engaging in this discourse of selective citizenship and imaginary boundaries of the state. One of the most vivid images from that day 14 years ago featured the late Bülent Ecevit – who once served as chairman of the RPP in the 1970s – declaring that parliament was “not the place to challenge the state.” Ever since, secularist discourse has treated Islamists as a group of outsiders who effectively besieged the Republic.
In 2007, millions of secularist Republicans organised countrywide protests to prevent the JDP government from selecting then-foreign minister Abdullah Gül as the country’s next president. A hijabi first lady, many claimed, would mark the end of the Republic as we knew it. The Republican masses conveyed their message by carrying large Turkish flags, some of which reached hundreds of metres in length.
The main opposition party, however, did not engage the hijabi MPs as their predecessors did 14 years ago. Instead, Muharrem İnce, one of the minority whips for the Republican opposition, proudly stated that “both hijabi and non-hijabi women were his sisters,” a wordplay on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s choice of words when describing the difficulties his daughters and other hijabi women had to face over the past two decades.
As a matter of fact, Mr. İnce told deputies that his own sister has worn the hijab all her adult life to make the point that the ruling party sought to add fuel to the fire by dragging four hijabi women into parliament for political gain. Nevertheless, the opposition maintained their calm throughout the session.
The Republican leadership’s decision to not challenge the hijab, however, infuriated some members of the party group: Dilek Akagün Yılmaz, a Kemalist hardliner who famously accused one of the party’s deputy chairmen of collaborating with the CIA to take down the party, wore a black t-shirt with the Turkish flag and a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, to protest the situation.
Similarly, Hüseyin Aygün, an Alevi MP with ultra-secularist tendencies, tweeted that allowing the hijab in Parliament represented a victory for Mr. Erdoğan’s Islamo-fascist dictatorship. All in all, Thursday’s parliament session in Ankara demonstrated that the country, including significant parts of its secularist opposition, had revisited their notions of secularism and state over the past decade.
Negotiating a New Muslim Identity
Whilst the JDP’s decade-long tenure transformed and redefined the country’s political centre, it also led to a renegotiation of Muslim identities in Turkey. Over the past decade, the emerging religio-conservative, urban middle classes have begun to frequent Istanbul’s luxurious shopping malls, to reside in gated communities with similar-minded neighbours and to enroll their children in private schools. Representing a stark contrast to the Islamist movement’s fierce anti-market economy stance up until the 1990s, the rapid shift in Muslims’ lifestyles sparked controversy among conservatives regarding the government’s business-friendly approach and changing habits of the new middle classes.
Most recently, an organisation called the anti-capitalist Muslims joined forces with mostly secularist anti-government protestors in June 2013 to criticise the government with respect to its pro-market policies. The sentiment, however, has yet failed to lure away parts of the JDP voter base due to the country’s strong economic performance and the government’s proven track record.
The lifting of the controversial headscarf ban has marked a significant victory for the JDP. Considering that the party’s efforts to pass a law to allow hijabi university students into university campuses was presented as evidence in a 2008 closure case that the JDP had become “the focal point of anti-secular activities,” Thursday’s parliament session has also established that the country’s secularist-authoritarian ancien regime has lost most, if not all, power over Turkey’s affairs.
Mr. Erdoğan’s government now faces serious challenges in the area of democratisation; having announced a series of new reforms on 1 October, the government will have to persuade the parliament to pass, among others, a bill to allow Kurdish-language instruction at private schools. Meanwhile, the party’s electoral base has already begun to voice disappointment with the fact that private employers continue to discriminate against hijabi women in the absence of legal safeguards against such labour practices. As such, public debate on equal citizenship and equal opportunity shall continue in the years to come.