Four female MPs from Turkey’s Islamist-rooted ruling party have worn Islamic headscarves into parliament in a challenge to the country’s secular tradition.
Colleagues in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) kissed and hugged the women yesterday as they took their seats in the general assembly in Ankara.
Secularist opponents made only subdued protests, a far cry from chaotic scenes in 1999, the last time a female MP wore a headscarf in parliament.
The headscarf is an emotive symbol in Turkey, viewed by secularists as the emblem of political Islam and its appearance in public life as an affront to the Turkish Republic’s secular foundations set up by founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
There are no specific restrictions on wearing the headscarf in parliament. But opposition from secularists as well as a ban in other state institutions, which was lifted this month, have previously deterred women wearing them.
“We are going to witness the start of an important era and we will play the leading role, we will be the standard-bearers, this is very important,” Nurcan Dalbudak, one of the four AKP MPs, said before the session began.
Turkey’s main opposition and secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which said it would contest the move, put up little resistance on the day. One MP wore a T-shirt picturing the face of Ataturk and the Turkish flag in protest while others offered sporadic jeers.
The MPs’ action took place only weeks after the AKP lifted a decades-old ban on women wearing the headscarf in state institutions as part of reforms the government says are meant to improve democracy.
But the debate goes to the heart of tensions between religious and secular elites, a fault-line in Turkish public life.
Restrictions on headscarves at universities have already been eased under the AKP and critics of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan point to this and other policies – such as restrictions on the sale of alcohol – as proof his party is seeking to erode the secular order of the republic built on the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy by Ataturk in 1923. Supporters of Mr Erdogan, whose wife also wears the headscarf, say he is simply redressing the balance and restoring freedom of religious expression to a Muslim majority.
But opponents accuse the AKP of using the headscarf for political gain and to garner support ahead of an election cycle.
“You only have one asset and we will not allow you to use this to play the victim,” Muharrem Ince, a prominent CHP deputy told the assembly, saying the four women had never stood up before in parliament to defend the rights of other women.
Ms Dalbudak dismissed the accusations, saying her decision was based solely on personal belief.
“I am very happy and proud because I am completing one of the foremost duties required of me. I am experiencing an inner peace because of this,” she said. “This has nothing to do with investing in an election.”
Their action was also a sign of changing times set against the unruly scenes of 1999, when Merve Kavakci, an MP from the Islamist Virtue Party, a forerunner to AKP, wore the headscarf to a swearing-in ceremony.
Then prime minister Bulent Ecevit told the assembly: “This is not the place to challenge the state. Inform this woman of her limits!”. Half the chamber stood shouting: “Get out! Get out!” to the seated Ms Kavakci who was forced to leave.