Slice of Life: GW professor Merve Kavakci: A modern-day Pilgrim

At first glance, professor Merve Kavakci doesn’t appear to have much in common with the Pilgrims. She is a Turkish Muslim, not an English Puritan. And instead of landing at Plymouth Rock in the Mayflower, she landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in a jumbo jet.

But like the Pilgrims we celebrate this week, Kavakci, who has a doctoral degree in political science, came to the United States seeking religious freedom.

In 1980 the Turkish government imposed a ban on the headscarves worn by many Muslim women. Kavakci’s mother – a professor who wears the headscarf like 69 percent of Turkish women – was left with a difficult decision. It was her headscarf or the job.

“I saw my mother having to choose between her religious convictions and her career,” said Kavakci, who teaches in the Elliott School.

Kavakci faced the same problem when she was accepted into medical school. Armed guards stood at the door and refused to let her in because she wore the headscarf.

She could either pursue her dream of becoming a medical doctor, or honor her religion and wear the headscarf.

The Kavakcis voted with their feet and headed to Dallas, Texas, a smart choice – that’s my hometown. She enrolled in university and quickly settled into American life.

“They welcomed and embraced us,” she said. “They could see what was in us beyond our looks. In Turkey, I would have been harassed on the streets.”

But in the 1990s, Kavakci returned to Turkey, where she made her way into politics. In 1999, she was elected to the Turkish parliament.

But there was one problem: her headscarf.

As she made her way to the podium to be sworn in, the chamber erupted in protest.

“Get out! Get out!” chanted politicians from the majority party, which Kavakci described as “secular fundamentalists” opposing any visible sign of religion.

Amid the chanting, the prime minister demanded, “Put this woman in her place,” she said. Kavakci was never sworn in.

“The idea was that as a religious-appearing woman, I didn’t deserve to be there,” she said. “It was the start of a political lynching campaign.”

The Turkish government stripped her of her citizenship and expunged her from the parliamentary record. As far as official Turkish history is concerned, she doesn’t exist.

“I’m not permitted to serve my country or constituents because of how I dress,” lamented Kavakci.

While her own country has sought to silence her, Kavakci has been able to use the freedom we enjoy in the U.S. to promote freedom and equality in Turkey.

“I decided to help represent the oppressed women of Turkey, maybe not in Turkey but in another place where decisions are made: Washington, D.C.,” she told me.

Since coming to Washington in 2000, Kavakci has made her mark. She was instrumental in getting the Department of State to condemn Turkey’s headscarf ban. She became a professor at GW in 2004, and she writes a weekly column for one of Turkey’s main newspapers. In 2007, she won a case against the Turkish government before the European Court of Human rights on behalf of a rural Turkish girl who was being prevented from going to school.

“If this was a Turkish university, I could not be sitting here,” Kavakci said during an interview in her Elliott School office.

“American students – especially at GW – have enormous blessings,” explained Kavakci. “One of them is the ability to respect one another despite differences. What can you give better to a person than giving respect to who they are? That’s a respect that women like myself don’t get in Turkey. “

Kavakci had only one complaint about the U.S.

“I just wish Dallas was the capital, so I could live there. My heart is still in Texas.”

She’s got good taste.

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