Not-so-veiled convictions: Professor stands up for religious freedom in Turkey

When Merve Kavakci tried to take her oath to enter the Turkish Parliament in 1999, other members of the national assembly shouted “get out” for 45 minutes.

One of only a handful of women in the 550-member body, the Elliott School of International Affairs professor expected some opposition from her fellow parliamentarians, but she wasn’t prepared for everything that happened. She recalled the prime minister pointing at her and saying, “Put this woman in her place.”

The members successfully blocked Kavakci from taking her oath, and within 11 days of the incident, Kavakci was stripped of her citizenship, banned from political activity until June 2006 and charged with instigating hatred.

What offended the members of Parliament, however, was not her gender. It was her refusal to remove her hijab, or headscarf, which they considered a challenge to Turkish secularism, she said.

The state’s westernization policy began as a movement to separate mosque and state, but has become a form “secular fundamentalism,” said Kavakci, 37, who has worn a hijab for 20 years. Turkey is about 99 percent Muslim.

“The state intervenes with religion so much so that (secularism) becomes a state religion,” Kavakci said. “It’s state-created Turkish Islam.”

Turkey bans federal employees and public school students up to the university level from wearing a hijab, said Kavakci, who was forced to quit studying medicine at the University of Ankara in 1988 for refusing to take off her hijab. The ban began in the 1980s as a provision to regulate the dress code of federal employees.

Kavakci’s book “Scarfless Democracy” has been published in Turkish and is awaiting English translation. She has become an activist trying to “raise consciousness” about the hijab ban that has spread to countries such as Belgium, France and Tunisia.

In March 2005, Kavakci testified before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that Turkey’s ban on the hijab violates the international treaties Turkey has signed.

Kavakci is also bringing suit against the Turkish government in the European Court of Human Rights for depriving her of her right to serve in Parliament and for denying her constituency the right to representation, she said. Kavakci is awaiting the court’s ruling, which is expected in the coming months.

“If you’re a political activist in Turkey and you haven’t been charged with anything than you’re not a real political activist,” Kavakci said. “It’s a badge of honor.”

The hijab Kavakci wore to her now infamous swearing-in ceremony was on display on Capital Hill from Oct. 24 to 28 as part of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s “Body of Belief” exhibit.

The exhibit, which is on a three-year international tour, features a collection of banned religious clothing, such as a Sikh turban that is restricted in many countries, and a necktie, which is banned in Iran, said Jared Leland, the fund’s spokesman and legal counsel.

“Merve is the focal point, and some could argue, the very reason as to what prompted the Body of Belief exhibit,” Leland said. “She is the posterchild for individuals, internationally-speaking, who have been persecuted or discriminated against for religious garb.”

Despite 25 years of restriction, Kavakci remains hopeful that one day the hijab ban will be lifted. Her former Islamist Virtue Party was banned in 2001, but reorganized as the Justice and Development Party and holds two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.

The ban on the hijab is creating a new social class of women who identify with one another not through age or occupation, but through the violation of their civil rights, Kavakci said.

“This is a 1950s Montgomery, Alabama,” she said.

Although she was prevented from taking her formal oath of office, Kavakci still considers herself a parliamentarian. Her constituency, however, has changed, she said.

“Before I saw myself as representing the people of Istanbul, but now I realized I represent the victims of the headscarf ban,” Kavakci said.

Younger generations are more tolerant of the hijab, said Kavakci, who estimated that more than 70 percent of Turkish women wear a headscarf.

“We’re part of the Turkish reality,” she said. “We will not be quieted.”

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