A strong believer in the importance of female representation in the political machinery, she calls on women from all walks of life and from all creeds to run for Parliament.
Turkey is currently discussing ending a headscarf ban at universities, but Kavakçı says the country should move beyond that and free the headscarf everywhere to allow women wearing headscarves to fully participate in the country’s public life. Noting that state animosity towards the headscarf has been in place for over 30 years, Kavakçı says the headscarf ban has affected the lives of generations of women. “Headscarved women are here, they are not going away, and they are maybe growing in number and they want to participate in public life,” Kavakçı says.
A lecturer in international affairs at The George Washington University, and the heroine in the “Kavakçı affair,” when she was forced out of Parliament for wearing a headscarf, shared her views on a number of topics with me through a telephone interview on Oct. 26 from her office in Washington, D.C.
I see your name has changed. Congratulations on your marriage, Dr. Kavakçı.
Thank you. Yes, I am now Dr. Merve Kavakçı İslam and am very happily married to Nazir Cihangir Islam, MD, an orthopedic and spine surgeon in İstanbul.
And I also understand you have a book coming out?
Yes, in fact today. It’s published by Palgrave Macmillan and it’s called “Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Postcolonial Reading.”
Sounds like an academic book.
Yes, in fact it was my PhD thesis with some modifications.
Can you tell us what the book is about and how it relates to your experience in Parliament?
It analyzes Turkey’s role model status within the context of Turkey’s treatment of headscarved women, and tries to shed a personal light on the rights of these women and how their lives have been affected over the decades.
What do you mean by a “postcolonial reading”?
It basically looks at the Orientalist assumptions within the Turkish context and brings a critique to those Orientalist ideals that are entrenched within the Turkish Republic, and how these Orientalist assumptions were used to marginalize headscarved women from public life. At the end I argue that this is a disservice to the republic politically, socially and economically.
So the West was Orientalist and felt itself superior towards its colonies, and in the postcolonial era Turkey followed this although it had no colonial experience in the past?
Yes. The Turkish Republic found its way to modernization at the outset and embraced the Westernization project in a fervent and adamant manner. It also internalized the very Orientalist assumptions itself, that the West was much better than the East and therefore the Turkish people needed to keep up with Western civilization, and this process led to the “indigenous-ation” of Orientalist assumptions by the regime. So I name these people Orientalized Orientals and I shed light on how they treated headscarved women and argue that they are actually neither part of the Orient nor the Occident -- they are caught in between. They look up to the West and thus legitimize the marginalization of headscarved women in society. Of course it is also a misreading by Turkey of the West as well. Here our own Orientalized Orientals, rather than taking in and internalizing the concept of liberties and freedom from the West, import an attitude of bans which is antithetical to what the West really stands for. As a result, for an Orientalized Oriental to be “uncovered” supersedes to be educated.
What are some of your feelings about what is happening now in Turkey with renewed public discussions regarding headscarf prohibitions?
The headscarf ban is a cancerous wound that needs immediate attention. It is finally sitting on the national agenda with national coverage and hopefully an in-depth discussion because this is a matter that has been affecting Turkish women’s lives for over 30 years. It’s unfortunate we women fail to attract much attention in the political arena. It’s often been a matter that no one wanted to think about or talk about and try to resolve. Now we are finally addressing what we really want to do with this large population of women who are in a way ostracized from society. They are here, they are not going away, and they are maybe growing in number and they want to participate in public life.
But most articles in the paper say the ban has been in effect since 1997. You are saying it’s really been much longer?
Yes, many of the women who are affected by the ban are not aware of its history. This is not a new thing. It started in 1981 right after the military coup. Prior to that, individual cases were raised. Of course, afterwards, depending on the political environment and administrators at universities, the ban was loosened up here and there but it has been part and parcel of Turkish women’s history for the past 30 years.
You are well known in Turkish political history, but wasn’t your first goal in life to be a doctor?
Yes, well I suppose you could call me a person who believes in destiny and I am a person who goes with the flow in terms of my life. I never thought that I would end up in political life. Politics was not one of my passions early on. I come from an academically established family, so my parents always wanted to see me in academia and I originally wanted to be a medical doctor, and so I entered the Ankara University School of Medicine, one of the top medical schools in the country. However, the headscarf ban hit me right there, right then, as a freshman in 1986 and it was really impossible to go to school and sneak into classes in and out with my headscarf, so by my second year I had to choose between my convictions and my profession.
And this coincided with your family being subjected to the ban as well?
Yes, this is a very sad fact about the headscarf ban in Turkey. It affects generations. It’s not just one small group of people whom you could overlook and tend to ignore. It affects not just one generation but so far, in the last 30 years, we are talking about three generations. I am a living example of that very fact. My mother had to leave the university when she taught German literature right after the ban was implemented by the coup government, and right when I was in medical school I ran into the same problem. I was the second generation. But my parents took this very bold step of leaving everything behind and moving to another country so that I and my two younger sisters could have an education without having to compromise our religious values. And now I look at my daughters who have already graduated from college, two young women with a headscarf, and unfortunately three generations have already been affected.
And yet you decided to come back to Turkey in the 1990s. Why?
It was important for me to be in my country and to expose my children at an early age to Turkish culture and language and to the rest of our larger extended family. We were also homesick. You cannot stay too long away from where your loved ones are and we came back to Turkey only to find out that I would find my new niche in life, politics. I was coming back to Turkey with a software engineering degree, and in those years I thought, what can I do? I am a woman with a headscarf. And therefore the only thing I could do was rear my children and meanwhile, with the power of destiny, I was asked to volunteer for a political party which I felt was my niche.
When you started working for the Welfare Party [RP], what was the role of women?
The RP was one of the first to organize women in large numbers. We hadn’t seen that in the political Islamic tradition and those preceding the party, including the National Salvation Party [MSP], but the RP was different. It was more comprehensive, more embracing and it wanted to utilize women’s efforts, half the population of Turkey, and bring them into the political realm. So what was interesting to see was how women, who only had an agency in the family as mothers, wives and sisters, were brought out to the public realm and rendered political agency. I was one of the women who worked at the headquarters. I oversaw this whole project and was responsible for international affairs.
When was this?
In 1993, 1994. We were going into the municipal elections.
Did Recep Tayyip Erdoğan benefit from women’s involvement in the party?
Yes, definitely. In fact, Erdoğan, who was the head of the İstanbul branch of the party and got elected mayor, was one of the front liners who encouraged women’s participation in political life and he worked very closely with the women’s commission and of course benefited from their involvement.
Did this participation by women continue in the Virtue Party [FP]?
Yes. What happened was, at the end of the general elections in 1995, everyone conceded that it was the women of the RP who helped bring it to power, and other parties emulated what the RP had done with women involved in one-to-one interaction with constituents. They took this as a model, so it became a focus of study, if you will, because women’s power was for the first time wielded to bring a party to power. We are talking about 200,000 women across the country who were responsible, from the headquarters down to the street level, who covered every apartment to get out the message for the RP. So when the RP went down, the FP continued in the same tradition.
The RP was very much criticized for not nominating women, for utilizing women’s efforts but not letting them represent themselves in Parliament. Ironically, this criticism came from outside, from the Kemalists, who used this to bash the RP movement. It also came from liberals, it came from women’s groups, it came from leftist groups, too, and was a topic of discourse within the party, as well. So, when the RP was closed down and the FP was established, the question of including women at higher representative places was raised. The FP became more of an open party, more democratic. And women from secular lifestyles came into the party, women like Nazlı Ilıcak, and for the first time in a political Islamic movement women were included in the Central Executive Board [MYK]. But I continued heading the foreign affairs division of the Women’s Commission.
When the time for early elections came, there were pressures from within and from outside the party regarding headscarved women on the question of nominations. They had played an indispensable role in the success of the movement. The nomination of women who were secular would be embarrassing without nominations of women with headscarves. After all, this is the Turkish nation and, like it or not, at the time, 73 percent of Turkish women wore a headscarf. This is part of our culture, tradition and history, but most importantly part of our religion. The FP had a healthy discourse and made the right decision by involving women.
But many writers in the West described your nomination as something that simply came from Necmettin Erbakan. How do you respond to that?
Well, it is unfortunate. The reality is actually a lot more complicated. Erbakan always had a sway over the Islamic political movement. However, at this time he was banned from politics. He had an indirect role in the decision-making body as well, still. Nonetheless, the nomination of a headscarved woman was discussed at the MYK time after time, people put out their views, the advantages and disadvantages, and a list of the ones who were brought in. I was only one of the 17 women, covered and uncovered, who were nominated.
It was almost a guarantee that two women with and two without headscarves were going to be elected, but it turned out that I was the only one who got elected, so it is a wrong reading of history to put this on one person. When they started discussing the nomination of Ilıcak and other secular women, the hardcore workers who put their lives in this 24/7 over the years started raising their voices that they wanted to be represented. I know this because I worked with these women. We know that we carried the party to power in 1997, and therefore it was very important that we have some sort of representation. So there was pressure from the bottom up, not just at the decision-making body of the party.
Is Muslim women’s support part of the Justice and Development Party’s [AK Party] support today?
Well, I can only speak as an outsider now as I am not too familiar with how the Women’s Commission under the AK Party currently works, but from personal experience I know that some of my friends who worked for the FP are now working for the AK Party and that women still hold an important and influential place within the party. However, I do not understand the AK Party’s position of just wanting to lift the ban at universities and of course the Republican People’s Party [CHP], coming from the Kemalist tradition, they are even having trouble with that. I do not feel rights can be partially granted. Lifting the ban only at universities would be similar to eradicating cancer halfway. Once we are there in the operating theater, let’s complete the job and free the body of this cancer.
Do you think there is now a bottom-up movement to bring about headscarved women candidates today, given how some women are speaking out now?
I think it is a similar one. The AK Party embraces and values women’s participation. The prime minister has talked about it as well, including in the political realm, where women’s representation is very low. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is very grim and therefore to include a number of women in Parliament and decision-making bodies is critical and so women with headscarves also need more representation.
What are your plans for running for office? Would you consider doing it again?
Women must be represented in higher numbers in all facets of the political machinery. Therefore, I believe that more women, including women with headscarves, must run for office in the next election. After all, all concur that Turkey must democratize itself, and this is one way of doing it. As far as my case is concerned, I have a court decree in hand, that of the European Court of Human Rights, that states that Turkey violated free elections in the Kavakçı affair. I was ready to do my job but was never permitted to complete it. Not only was I precluded from carrying the responsibility of representing the people of İstanbul, but they were also stripped of their right to representation. Because due process never took place, my seat remained vacant, leaving the constituents deprived of their representation. There is a suspended duty that needs completion.
When you walked into Parliament in 1999, were you expecting the almost violent response? How did you manage to deal with all that you went through?
Well, I usually know what to expect because I am a woman with a headscarf, and a daughter of a woman with a headscarf. Very early on in the 1970s when I was a child I had seen my mother being verbally harassed when she was driving a car in Ankara where we lived, where there were very few women who could have a car and drive. This was unfathomable from a Kemalist point of view, and I also had seen many times belittling remarks made at my mother.
When I grew up, I faced the same thing walking in the streets of Ankara, people shouting at me, “You are too young to cover,” “Why are you covering?” “Are you getting paid from Iran or somewhere?” while I tried to go about my life. So yes, I was expecting some sort of protest from people who cannot even accept our right to exist on this earth, and who are very intolerant. Looking back, I was probably too naive to think that democracy would win, that even if they do not like me they would have to put up tolerating me. But of course that did not occur. I don’t think I saw it coming at this very level. I don’t think anyone who was in Parliament, including the protesters, knew what was coming. So not only was I shocked, but they must have been shocked from the show they put together.
What was it like to campaign, win and then face what happened in Parliament?
I was running after my life. My life was ahead of me, if you will. I had to deal with all the tabloids’ so-called news about me and my family and attacks from the media while I tried to keep my composure and focus on my campaign as well. I had to make sure that people got to know me and explain what I wanted to do for Turkey so I could receive their votes. It was quite a difficult time. On the one hand I felt very proud to be nominated and elected, both as a woman and as a covered woman, because that group needed to be represented. So I had to handle the attacks. I received my credentials from the state, based on that, I ran for office, got elected to Parliament and then we had the trouble of taking my oath of office because people in Parliament chose to protest and unfortunately the presiding president that day, the speaker, couldn’t placate their anger and their wrath towards me. He had to cut the session off. Of 550 people, there were around 110 or so. We’re talking about one-fifth of Parliament, protesting against an officially elected member.
When President Süleyman Demirel later that evening called you an “agent provocateur,” how did you feel?
I was shocked and disappointed. I was trying to make sense of what was going on in Parliament and outside as well. Seeing women on the front lines of that protest was unexplainable for me, and the president of Turkey, who knew my family well, calling me an “agent provocateur” without any knowledge was very disappointing.
The president knew your family?
Of course. His family is from Isparta and my mother’s family is from Isparta. He knows my uncle, calls him by his first name.
So how could he make these statements? Was it coming from the military?
Two years later I was informed by a member of Parliament from my party that Demirel actually carried the message from the military to my party and that this would have ended in a military intervention had I taken my oath of office.
So with the president, the prime minister, the press and the military opposed to you, it was impossible for your party to do anything?
Well, they chose not to do anything.
Getting back to Turkey today, what are your feelings about those who still oppose lifting the ban at universities?
The surveys are very clear that the majority of Turks in large numbers favor lifting the ban -- almost 90 percent -- and almost 60 percent have no problem with a headscarved woman being elected to Parliament. On the ground, at the people’s level, on the street, we have no problem living together, hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, neighbor-to-neighbor, women with headscarves and women without headscarves. The trouble is up above in the institutions.
The matter must be approached from the perspective of freedom of expression. If we claim that we are a democracy, we must live up to the standards of human rights and liberties with freedom of expression, freedom of religion and equal opportunity in education and at work. In this time and age it is unexplainable to live in a country where you cannot live with your dignity and you cannot have access to education or work because of your religious convictions; particularly in a Muslim country, this is unexplainable.
And if you look at the opposition, I suppose it has very much to do with the sharing of the public pie, if you will. When you look at the rhetoric against lifting the ban, the pretexts, you find remarks belittling Islam and the religion or not respecting peoples’ choice, or you find insinuations of the threat these women will cause to the sharing of public life, and I suppose one can try to understand the mentality when a certain group of people assumed the public sphere for over 80 years. They need to know that there is no other way but to respect and tolerate one another. If we claim we are a democracy, we can’t keep ignoring the majority of the female population who lack agency.
Who is Merve Kavakçı Islam?
Dr. Kavakçı is currently a lecturer in international affairs at The George Washington University. She was elected to the Turkish Parliament on April 18, 1999, but was subsequently not allowed to take her oath of office due to protests over her wearing of a headscarf. She holds a PhD in political science from Howard University, an MPA from Harvard University and a B.S. in software engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her areas of expertise are the democratization of the Muslim world, contemporary Turkish politics, women in Islam and Muslim women in politics
*Richard Peres is a writer living in İstanbul and contributor to Sunday’s Zaman. He is completing a book on Merve Kavakçı. http://richperes.blogspot.com/ [email protected]