Canada Calling – Ousted Turkish M.P. Merve Kavakci Calls on Canada To Help Hijab-Wearing Muslim Women
By Faisal Kutty – More than 37,000 girls expelled from school. Twenty-four thousand teachers fired. The possible sentencing to death of a mother and her two teenage daughters for participating in a political rally. Thousands of Islamic schools in the country ordered shut. Two hundred teachers prosecuted for violating a special anti-terror law. A journalist sentenced to 145 years in jail for writing an article critical of Israel. Teaching the Qur’an and Islam forbidden even in the privacy of one’s own home.
Welcome to Turkey in the 21st century. The one-time seat of the Islamic empire is now one of the bastions of Muslim persecution. The girls, the mothers, the teachers and students all are guilty of the same crime—wearing or advocating the right to don the hijab, or Islamic head covering. Over the last three years, the military-run secular state has intensified the anti-Islam policies set in motion by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk in the early 1920s.
The plight of Turks who wish to practice Islam is virtually ignored by media in both the West and the East. Even editors of major Western media outlets who consider themselves enlightened and aware appear to be ignorant or indifferent on the situation in Turkey. I discovered this while trying to arrange interviews with Turkish Member of Parliament Merve Kavakci.
Following her 1999 election to parliament the 32-year-old legislator was precluded from taking the oath of office and was booed out of parliament by members of the ruling Democratic Social Leftist Party for walking into parliament wearing hijab. Although her story received international attention at the time, most editors I spoke with thought Kavakci was thrown out for refusing to wear the hijab. When I corrected them, they asked incredulously, “But isn’t Turkey a Muslim country?”
No matter how hard the ruling elite in Turkey would like everyone to forget the country’s roots, it seems the world just won’t let it. Even if the world did, courageous Turkish women like Merve Kavakci certainly won’t. “I have hope for Turkey that it would integrate into the Western world without ending its Islamic bonds with the East,” said Kavakci.
Kavakci, who was in Canada in late November to deliver lectures and meet with the media in Toronto and Ottawa, is not someone working against progress for Turkish women, as her critics would have us believe. And she certainly is no pushover.
“Anyone who wants to fight for what is right must be prepared to struggle all the way,” said the articulate advocate for women’s rights.
“I chose politics to make changes in Turkey and for the whole of humanity.”
The brunt of human rights violations falls squarely on the shoulders of Muslim women in Turkey, and Kavakci has made it her mission to fight for Turkish women, almost 70 percent of whom wear hijab. Her passion for the hijab issue was ignited back in the 1980s, when her mother was forced to leave her faculty position at a Turkish university, and was reinforced in 1988 when she herself was forced to leave medical school due to pressures to remove her hijab.
“If we want to make a difference and we really mean it, we have to be in politics,” said the University of Texas graduate. “That’s why I chose politics, to make changes in Turkey and for the whole of humanity.”
The former head of foreign affairs for the Islamist Virtue Party said that religion is a large part of her identity, and insisted that others must accept her the way she is. “What you see is what you get,” she said.
Although the mother of two now lives in Washington, DC, she still maintains her status as a Turkish MP—along with her diplomatic immunity. She now is lobbying Western governments to pressure Turkish authorities to respect human rights for all Turkish citizens, including women.
“I want to point out the double standard and hypocrisy of the Western world in standing up for women in Afghanistan and Iran,” Kavakci said, “while they ignore the right of the majority of women in Turkey who are precluded from school, work and society for simply covering their hair.”
She and her family, including her young children, were repeatedly harassed in Turkey for what authorities said was her exploitation of Islam for political purposes.
An “Agent Provocateur”
But her crime is nothing other than refusing to remove her hijab. For this, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel called Kavakci an “agent provocateur.” (Interestingly, Demirel was appointed as a “Muslim” representative to the U.S. fact-finding committee sent to investigate the violence in Palestine. Turkey’s close alliance with Israel may also have played a part in his appointment.)
Ten days after being heckled out of Parliament, Kavakci was stripped of her citizenship, allegedly for not disclosing her dual Turkish-U.S. citizenship. This despite the fact that more than 20 Turkish MPs, including Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, one of her strongest critics, hold such dual citizenship. Thousands of other American Turks, moreover, who are in a similar situation have yet to have their citizenship revoked. In fact, when many became worried when Kavakci’s citizenship was taken away, the Turkish Embassy in Washington assured them that they had nothing to worry about.
Turkey’s powerful generals, who see their mission as ensuring the secular nature of the state, regard the hijab as a symbol of political Islam, and its banning is part of a strategy to combat the Islamist revival. Following recommendations in 1997 by the military dominated National Security Council the ban has been intensified. That same year, the Islamist Refah Party was forced from power and its leaders, including then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, were prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the Constitution by introducing Islamic rule. Erbakan and other leaders have been jailed and/or banned from politics. Some of the banned Refah Party’s former members have joined the successor Islamist party, the Virtue Party.
Turkey’s obsession with a perceived Islamic threat and the government’s undertaking to combat it at any cost ignores the fact that secular liberalism is but one of many world views. Ironically, the assumption that everyone will wish to become secular when given the freedom to choose, and the imposition of this view on others, only leads Turkey’s rulers to commit a variation on the very crime of which they accuse Islamists: one might describe it as “secular fundamentalism.”
During her talk at the University of Toronto, Kavakci was asked what Muslims in North America can do for Turkish Muslims. Kavakci replied that Muslims in the democratic West have the perfect opportunity to use their vote and lobby their elected representatives to ease the plight of Turkish Muslims. In fact, she said, a simple phone call from Western leaders is all that is needed to end the persecution. “Turkey,” she said, “will listen to its masters.”
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and columnist for iViews.com
Note: First Published: January/February 2001, Pages 48, 113
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