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Turkey women MPs break taboo to wear headscarves in parliament

Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmaker Gulay Samanci wears a headscarf during a parliamentary session in Ankara, on October 31, 2013
Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmaker Gulay Samanci wears a headscarf during a parliamentary session in Ankara, on October 31, 2013

Four female lawmakers from Turkey's Islamic-rooted government attended parliament Thursday wearing headscarves for the first time, breaking a long taboo in the staunchly secular country.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lifted on September 30 a decades-old ban on headscarves in the civil service as part of a package of reforms meant to improve democracy and freedoms.

In principle, the ban remains in place for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel.

The headscarf is a highly sensitive symbol in Turkey as it is viewed by secularists a sign of political Islam in stark contrast to the republic's strongly secular traditions.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "There is nothing in parliamentary bylaws that stands as an obstacle to this.

"Everyone should respect our sisters' decision... They are the nation's representatives in parliament," he said Wednesday.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers Nurcan Dalbudak (2nd right) and Sevde Beyazit Kacar (3rd left) wear headscarves during a parliamentary assembly in Ankara, on Ocotber 31, 2013
Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers Nurcan Dalbudak (2nd right) and Sevde Beyazit Kacar (3rd left) wear headscarves during a parliamentary assembly in Ankara, on Ocotber 31, 2013

In 1999, Turkish American lawmaker Merve Kavakci arrived in parliament wearing a headscarf for her swearing-in ceremony but she was booed out of the house and then had her Turkish citizenship revoked.

The Turkish premier, whose wife and daughter wear a headscarf, said that opposing the wearing of headscarves in parliament showed "disrespect to parliament and their faith."

The four women began wearing headscarves after they made the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca this year.

"I will no longer take off my headscarf," one of the women, Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey, was quoted as saying by the Milliyet newspaper.

"(Wearing a) headscarf and other religious issues are between the believer and his God... I expect everyone to respect my decision," she added.

Opponents brand headscarf move a political ploy

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference in Ankara, on September 30, 2013
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media during a press conference in Ankara, on September 30, 2013

The AKP pledged to remove the ban on headscarves in all domains when it came to power in 2002 and has already relaxed the ban at universities.

The latest reforms were hailed by Erdogan as a "step towards normalisation".

But his opponents have branded the lifting of the ban a political manoeuvre as the country braces for an election cycle beginning with municipal polls in March next year.

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) accused the AKP of undermining Turkey's secular traditions to gain votes.

"In Turkey, undermining the state's secular traditions is tantamount to undermining society," said CHP lawmaker Engin Altay.

"What will happen if a lawmaker wears a burka in parliament?"

The AKP said the new measure does not apply to the full face-covering veil.

Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) lawmaker Dilek Akagun Yilmaz wears a T-shirt with a portrait of Kemal Ataturk during a parliamentary session in Ankara, on October 31, 2013
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) lawmaker Dilek Akagun Yilmaz wears a T-shirt with a portrait of Kemal Ataturk during a parliamentary session in Ankara, on October 31, 2013

The highly charged headscarf debate lies at the heart of Turkey's divisions between religious conservatives, who form the bulk of Erdogan's AKP supporters, and more secular members of society.

The government is already under fire for what critics say are creeping efforts to force Islamic values on the predominantly Muslim country.

Erdogan's government was hit by a wave of unrest in June as tens of thousands of protesters calling him a "dictator" raged against what they said was his increasingly iron-fisted, conservative-leaning style of governance.

A former Islamic firebrand, Erdogan has brought relative economic and political stability to Turkey since he came to power in 2002.

But his authoritarian style and a tendency to use courts to stifle dissent -- including a campaign taking on the powerful military establishment-- have proved a major test in a country which has long sought to join the European Union.

Critics say Erdogan's decades-plus rule has left Turkish society more polarised.

In May, Turkey's parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, the toughest such measures in the republics history.

The AKP has a comfortable majority in the 550-seat parliament with 327 deputies. There are a total of 79 female lawmakers.

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