North Africa, West Asia

The two ends of Turkish democracy: opening up and covering up

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About ten days after the democratic package was introduced, Turkey was tested, this time by a woman with décolletage. Turkey failed that test too.

Oguz Alyanak
23 October 2013

On 2 May 1999, the opening day of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) where the elected representatives were invited to take the oath and become members of the Parliament, one female member, Merve Kavakçı, entered the grand assembly wearing her headscarf.

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Merve Kavakci wearing her headscarf in the TBMM, 2 May 1999. (Image taken from Richard Peres’ personal blog)

The piece of cloth covering her hair was seen as an act of transgression. She was simply different; an outcast. The act was to cost her the seat in the Parliament. In a country where laïcité constitutes an immutable article of the Constitution and counts as one of the three founding principles of the Republic, the headscarf, occupying the very space in which the Constitution was penned, was sacrilegious. The events that followed[i], now regarded as a historic moment in Turkish political history, found their utterance in the words of Bulent Ecevit, the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the then Prime Minister of Turkey (1999-2002):

“No one can interfere with the dress code or the headscarf or the private life of a woman; however, this [the TBMM] is not a private abode. It is the highest institution of the state. [Cheers and claps interrupt the speech] Those who work here have to abide by the laws and customs of the state. This is not a place to challenge the state. Please put this woman in her place.”[ii]

It was this act of opening up - of freeing the female body of its garments - that defined the parameters of Turkish democracy in 1999. The idea of women participating in public life without the headscarf served a central role in the reconstruction of a secular social imaginary. And Kavakci’s headscarved presence challenged the very logic behind this reconstructive process and confronted the very values embedded in the Turkish secular repertoire.

Fast-forward almost 15 years, approximately 13 of which were spent under the leadership of one political party (the Justice and Development Party-AKP) and more or less one political leader (Recep Tayyip Erdogan), and today, we speak of a “different” Turkey. Unlike the 1990s, which were spent in a tug of war between secularism (laïcité) and Islamism, and resulted in a “post-modern” coup d’état, the 2000s have provided a calmer milieu in which Islam could prudently bloom out of the cracks in the secular cement. This was also the period where notions such as multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue became popular. A growing interest in Sufism and Islam defined the global trend. Every time trouble was caused in the name of Islam (be it 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombing or the 2005 French riots and London underground bombings) the interest in Islam grew. The very repugnance of such brutal acts made the international community search harder to find a glimpse of hope in the Muslim world, and that they found at their doorstep, in Turkey.

The AKP benefited greatly from this global climate, and used it to its advantage at home. Unlike its predecessors - conservative politicians/parties that would confront the secular repertoire and who would eventually get banned by the Constitutional Court for their pains - the AKP formulated a strategy that played the game by its secular rules. Many of its members and ministers, moreover, were the products of a secular Turkey’s institutions. Many others were the products of prestigious institutions of higher education in Turkey and abroad. In many ways, the AKP did not fit into the “Islamist” image that has for long served to fulfil the criteria of the “other” in Turkey.

Hence emerges the profile of a different Turkey. Turkey has changed, from a country riddled with discussions over the incompatibility of laïcité and Islam, to discussions of their peaceful coexistence. However, as many national and international organizations repeatedly declared, and continue to do so, this ostensible harmony is less the result of democratic measures and more of authoritarian and restrictive ones. And the instances we’ve all witnessed this summer are outright manifestations of the albeit muted nature of a growing criticism in Turkey. The changes undertaken do more than provide a certain group of people with benefits. Instead, change also takes away the rights for many other groups who fall outside the government’s framework. From this perspective, the resentments towards the steps undertaken by the AKP government, the most recent being Turkey’s “democratization package” start to make sense. 

It is the existing rights that may potentially be taken away that worry some in Turkey. When Prime Minister Erdogan spoke against the Gezi protestors in late August, and declared his dream to raise, “a youth that does not vandalize and barbarize, but rather makes morality its nourishment in following its martyred ancestors”[iii], he drew the line between good and bad. But this was not a place where the two would coexist. Instead, the bad example had to be rehabilitated, incarcerated or eliminated. The Prime Minister’s aim of “raising a religious youth” as the authors of the FreeSpeechDebate blog rightfully argue[iv] comes at the expense of those who would like to locate themselves outside of this religiously-defined sphere. The fear of the rest of us is less of the investment in religious youth and more of the accompanying disinvestment in those who lie outside the definition.

This fear which, as the government’s response to the Gezi protests show, has some credibility forces us to question the emerging Turkey. No matter how “revolutionary” Turkey’s democratization package is, we think twice when we are told by the Prime Minister that “Turkey is progressing irreversibly toward democracy [and] this package is a fundamental and historic phase of this progress”[v].

Turkey’s Cleavage

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Gozde Kansu in her game-show costume, 6 October 2013. (photo by Facebook/GozdeKANSU)

What is also worrisome is that despite the change of actors and agendas, the debates continue to revolve around the same old theme: what is permissible in private and what is not permissible in public. And the woman’s body continues to act as the playground for these discussions. In 1999, it was the headscarf. Today, it is cleavage. 

Earlier this month, the much too fermented debate over laïcité and Islam was resurrected, once again, this time over a TV-show host’s cleavage, following comments made by the AKP Deputy chairman, Huseyin Celik: “Can a woman be accepted if she goes to a place with an extreme décolleté dress? There was a game show yesterday on one of the channels in the mainstream media. I looked at it; the presenter had such a dress that it’s not acceptable. There needs to be a sensitivity in choosing dresses for TV broadcasting.”

After locating a victim, then came the justification: “We don’t intervene in anyone’s clothing. However, can you be a presenter on one of the most watched TV channels with an extreme evening gown? Could this be accepted? This can’t receive positive feedback anywhere in the world. Even if you go too far in Hollywood, they will tell you that you have gone too far.” [vi]

The next day, the result of not intervening in anyone’s clothing became apparent. Gozde Kansu, the woman whose bosom fell under Celik’s gaze, received the news that her contract was suspended. So was the contract of Merve Kavakçı in 1999, after she was booed out of the Turkish Parliament, and had her citizenship revoked (a fate that may have been more to do with Kavakçı holding an undeclared American passport). 

In 1999, Turkey’s democracy was tested by a female wearing the headscarf. Then, Turkey failed that test. As of early this month, the Turkish Prime Minister introduced a democratic package which, among other things, lifts the ban on headscarf in public offices, and punishes persons who discriminate against those donning headscarves for religious purposes.[vii] Without a doubt, this is a step forward. Now that obstacles to access are lifted, many women choosing Islamic lifestyles will have greater opportunities to excel in life. Unlike Merve Kavakçı, who was a graduate of an American university, they will be able to get higher education in Turkey, while wearing the scarf. But could it be that this forward progress is coming at someone else’s expense?

About ten days after the package, Turkey’s democracy was tested, this time by a woman with décolletage. Turkey failed that test too. The actors may be different, and so may their approaches to Islamic and secular lifestyles, however, the debates remain tethered around pretty much the same issues, and this needs a much closer look.


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2-Z3USO1kM

[ii] http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=291093

[iii] http://www.radikal.com.tr/politika/erdogan_sizi_gidi_geziciler_gezseniz_iyi_hep_yatiyorsunuz-1148543

[iv] http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/raising-religious-youth-in-turkey/

[v] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/government-takes-steps-on-headscarf-kurds-electoral-system.aspx?PageID=238&NID=55393&NewsCatID=338

[vi] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/gozde-kansu-fired-outfit-turkey.html

[vii] http://www.todayszaman.com/news-327738-pm-introduces-landmark-reforms-but-admits-more-needs-to-be-done.html

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