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Merve Kavakçı Islam: Women Belong in Elected Office

5 July 2011 2 Comments

Merve Kavakçı Islam

Richard Peres

Editor’s Note: The Turkish parliamentary elections, held last month, were marked by the voices of some candidates demanding their right to wear religious head coverings on the floor of parliament.  Below is Richard Peres’ interview with one of these women.  This piece originally appeared in Today’s Zaman and is reposted here with the author’s permission.


Merve Kavakçi Islam, a strong believer in the importance of female representation in the political machinery, calls on women from all walks of life and from all creeds to run for elected office.

A lecturer in international affairs at The George Washington University, and the heroine in the “Kavakçı affair,” when she was forced out of the Turkish Parliament for wearing a headscarf, she shared her views on a number of topics with me through a telephone interview on Oct. 26 from her office in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Kavakçı was elected to the Parliament in Turkey on April 18, 1999, but subsequently not allowed to take her oath of office due to protests over her wearing of a headscarf. She holds a Ph.D. 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.

Turkish Women Credit: Jon Rawlinson

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 protesting. We’re talking about one-fifth of Parliament, protesting against an officially elected member.

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.

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. 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 where 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 headscarves, and unfortunately three generations have already been affected.

Credit: Kivanc Nis

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.

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.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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2 Comments to “Merve Kavakçı Islam: Women Belong in Elected Office”
  1. irit says:

    I never could understand the problematica of heads carve. Why forbid a woman to appear in parliament or anywhere else with a cover on her head while it is allowed for men to have hat on their head?
    I have read some articles about that issue, but couldn’t get a convincing answer ….it seems it is only because it is a women’s issue…
    I would appreciate for enlightening explanation.

  2. damian cook says:

    i should like women right next to me if you will. i just assume any person has the right to know what they are getting themselves into by the implication of wearing or not wearing a head scarfe.

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