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April 24, 2012, Tuesday

Civilian invasion of Parliament

The traditional reception held in the General Assembly hall of Parliament to mark the anniversary of its establishment was a different one.

It looked, sort of, “more normal” than previous ones. The reason was the choice of the representation, which also defined the mood.

In completely normal democracies, a similar “Parliament Day” would be hosted by the speaker and his/her spouse. The one held in Ankara on Monday was marked by a long-awaited first: The speaker, Cemil Çiçek, was finally able to welcome the guests with his wife, Gülten Çiçek. Many of the deputies from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were also present with their spouses.

Of course, ever since the AKP came to power, whether or not to hold receptions with politicians’ wives and other female guests wearing the headscarf had become an issue. It was forced upon the president and the speaker by the army, whose top brass refused to turn up on April 23 (Parliament Day) and Oct. 29 (Republic Day) celebrations. Ridiculous arrangements were witnessed in both events, with organizers either only inviting the men or those with wives who did not wear the headscarf.

It was until very recently pushed ad absurdum. In a NATO summit, the former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, had not invited Emine Erdoğan, who in turn did not invite his wife, Semra Sezer, when she organized a tour of the Bosporus for guests’ spouses. When the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) held its annual congress in İstanbul, the then-rector of İstanbul University, Kemal Alemdaroğlu, refused to extend an invitation (to the welcome dinner organized on university premises) to Hayrünnisa Gül, the wife of Abdulllah Gül, who was the foreign minister at the time. I witnessed the presidential reception in Oct. 29, 2010 (just after the spectacular referendum) in the Çankaya presidential palace, where the military was entirely absent.

Monday marked a new beginning, showing yet another psychological barrier being demolished. The civilian guests were rather diverse in their dress, as the top generals also chose to join the ceremony -- but without their spouses. Still, the general mood was that of satisfaction.

Symbolism in Turkey matters more than many other things. It is a legacy of the rigid form of military republicanism, which dominated the manners of representation and discourse. It was, despite progress two days ago, still very visible: With the military “meeting the opposition halfway” to allow “civilian will” (meaning leaving the wives at home), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) preferred to be absent. So was Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). In other gatherings on Monday he looked nervous, unhappy. Nobody knew exactly why. The war within symbolisms told us that the path was still open for change; the distance for full respect for the “other” is still rather vast, as well as accepting the fact that Parliament is and will be the house of diversity.

Another aspect of symbolism is perhaps more important. Parliament Day (the 92nd anniversary of its opening) follows remarkable legal probes on the disastrous heritage of Turkey -- the tradition of military coups and tutelage. This year, it seemed to have a new content, arguably showing that the legislative body started to reassert itself as the “sole house of political decisions.” It may mean the beginning of its long overdue consolidation in the democratic transformation, called “normalization.”

Certainly there are hard democratic tasks ahead. In celebrations, both at Çankaya and Parliament, the entire diversity of Turkey must be visible -- top figures of all ethnicities and creeds dressed as they please. The section of seats reserved in Parliament for the top brass, more prominent than the one devoted to the president, must be abolished. The Republican Guard, affiliated with the General Staff, must leave the presidential palace and the military aide of the president (always present wherever he goes) must be let go.

Also, let me end with an issue which again reminds Turkey of how important the new constitution is: the ban on the headscarf in education. As Amnesty International noted in its recent report, titled “Choice and Prejudice”:

“By maintaining policies and legislation enshrining a general prohibition on the headscarf and other religious and cultural symbols and dress in higher education, Turkey violates the rights to freedom of religion or belief and of expression of those who freely chose to manifest their religious or cultural belief. Adult students excluded from higher education only because they wear religious and cultural symbols and dress are discriminated against on the ground of religion or belief in access to education.” Freedom is a full, solid package. When Parliament realizes that it should act to make concessions towards increased diversity, only then can it start to satisfy public opinion. It has a long way to go.

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