On October 30, 2013, Turkey moved beyond the social politics of the previous decades, as four female members of parliament entered the parliament with their headscarves on. Merve Kavakci, a former parliamentarian from the Islamist Prosperity Party, attempted the same act on May 2, 1999. She was kicked out of the parliament and eventually stripped of her citizenship.
The secularist Republican People’s party acceptance indicates that the fight over the headscarf issue might be over. Previously, there was a ban against wearing headscarves in universities, in the parliament, and as public workers, but now with certain exceptions for public employees the last of the bans were lifted. The day was a victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as resolving this issue was one of their key promises when coming to power. Arguably though, the greatest victor was greater religious freedom for the people of Turkey.
Opposition party members focused their speeches on gaining other freedoms in Turkey. Safak Pavey, Turkey’s first and only disabled female member of Parliament and a recipient of the International Women of Courage Award, stated, “I will never be afraid of giving more freedom to women.... What makes me sad is when I went over the speeches of my fellow headscarved MP’s I never heard of any mentioning of other people’s freedoms.”
Pavey’s words signified a change of status quo in Turkish politics. After decades of oppression, Islamists now have total power over state government offices. The ruling AKP controls the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies of the state. With the headscarf issue resolved, Islamists now have much less grounds to claim that they are an oppressed class in Turkey. In the past, their religious views have prevented them from taking part in vast parts of Turkish state. After the violent handling of the anti-government Gezi protests this summer and the series of trials wherein dozens of army officers were convicted of attempting to stage a coup based on uncertain evidence, more secularists in Turkey believe they are an oppressed class with their liberal and secular world view under attack. Feelings of oppression in Turkey from both sides has created a highly polarized society.
In the week following the resolution of the headscarf issue, many liberal Turks have expressed fears regarding AKP’s religious-oriented rule and they are concerned that the AKP does not mean to expand civil liberties to all Turks. On November 4, these concerns were raised following reports that the PM Erdogan made the following statement: “We witnessed the problems that arise from the lack of government provided housing for students in Denizli (a city in western Turkey). Girls and boys are staying in the same house together and this is against our morals. I have instructed my governor to conduct inspections on these houses to do what is necessary.”
Some Government officials rushed to deny the implications of the PM’s statements, declaring that he was not referring to private households. Yet PM Erdogan later confirmed that the original intent of the statement was in fact his true view.
Erdogan’s actions sparked some ire from party members, notably a minister that is considered his political big brother, Bulent Arinc. Such disagreements are rare in AKP, and the bulk of the party supported Erdogan’s point of view, making supportive statements about “the need to protect children from falling into bad ways.”
Before PM Erdogan’s comments about the issue, mix-gender student housing has never been an issue in Turkey. Most liberal Turks did not believe that their private lives would become a national issue. With freedoms expanding for some parts of society and increasingly under threat for others, it is easy to see that the tables have been turned and “freedoms” and “civil liberties” are ever more subjective and relative terms.
As Erdogan embraces an authoritarian style of governance with a new focus on implementing Islamic social policies, it seems that Turkey’s push for a pluralistic democracy is following the routine of one step forward and two steps back.