Merve Kavakci, elected to Turkish parliament from Istanbul as a Fazilat (Virtue) Party candidate in the April 18 election, appears at first sight quite unassuming, even a little shy. But beneath that gentle exterior is a young Muslimah of steely nerves. On May 2 when she entered parliament for the oath-taking ceremony wearing a headscarf, she walked into a storm, facing the taunts of hundreds of secularists demanding her expulsion. As they screamed “Get out”, Merve Kavakci sat with quiet dignity.
The controversy caused by Sister Kavakci’s insistence on fulfilling her Islamic duty to be properly covered, and on resisting secular demands that she expose herself, has brought the wrath of Turkey’s secular establishment upon both herself and the ‘Islamist’ Fazilat Party. The country’s chief prosecutor, Vural Savas, began legal action to close the party down on May 7. Meanwhile, police in Malatya, a town in central Turkey, used teargas and armoured vehicles to disperse crowds protesting against the ban on hijab in Malatya University. Many protestors were injured and large numbers arrested.
Merve Kavakci is no ordinary person. She has memorised the noble Qur’an, is a qualified computer scientist, and was head of the Women’s Commission of the now-banned Refah Party. Not unaccustomed to difficulties, Sister Kavakci was forced to abandon her medical studies at Ankara University because Turkey’s secular rulers believe that a woman’s head-covering prevents her from acquiring knowledge. She migrated with her parents to the US to study computer science. Her parents, too, have suffered the Kemalists’ wrath. Her mother was fired from her position as professor at Ataturk University because she refused to remove her hijab. Merve’s father, Yusuf Ziya Kavakci, was dean of Islamic studies at the university until he was forced to resign because he supported the right of women to wear hijab.
Sister Kavakci, married and the mother of two young daughters, said in a recent interview that the decision to cover her head in parliament is a test of democracy. “In the twenty-first century, they must allow us this freedom.” She said her right to wear the headscarf was guaranteed by the constitution and international laws: “My head is covered because of my faith. I will defend my rights until the end.”
The secularists, however, see this as a challenge to their fanatic belief. The caretaker prime minister Bulent Ecevit, who was asked by president Suleiman Demirel on May 3 to form a coalition government, also weighed in saying that, by the “highest authority in Turkey” (meaning the generals who are the real rulers) no scarves would be allowed in parliament. Turkey’s secular fanatics made a spectacle of themselves by displaying such bad manners. Ecevit saw Sister Kavakci’s hijab as a “challenge to the authority of the State,” no less.
A senior general, Sami Zig, threatened on May 8 that the military would crush all opposition to secularism, claiming that the military is “the protector, preserver and guardian of Ataturk’s reforms and principles.” He also said that “while we are here, religious fundamentalism stands no chance.” In reality, Turkish generals are afraid of a woman’s head covering.
Parliamentary rules do not specifically ban the wearing of hijab by Members of Parliament in the assembly chamber, although civil servants are forbidden to wear it and it is banned in schools and public buildings. Sister Kavakci dismissed a compromise proposal by Ecevit, which would allow her to wear the headscarf in the parliament building, but not in the plenary chamber. “Who is Ecevit? Does he make the laws in Turkey? I am sticking to the constitution and the rules of this country.”
“The clothing rules require women to wear a two-piece costume. Because of this I have been running around in silly dresses for days now. I hate dresses and would much rather wear trousers,” she said.
Some secularists go to extreme lengths to argue their point. “The law says men should wear a tie and a jacket. It doesn’t mention trousers. But obviously men are not allowed to enter parliament without trousers,” said Kamer Genc of the center-right True Path Party of former prime minister Tansu Ciller.
What Genc forgot was that Sister Kavakci’s “crime” was not being dressed improperly; rather their wrath was directed at her Islamic dress which defends the dignity of a woman. It appears that she was guilty, in their eyes, of dressing too properly. But perhaps this is beyond the comprehension of the Kemalists who are weaned on anti-Islamic propaganda.
Demirel described Sister Kavakci as an “agent provocateur.” Rejecting the allegation, she demanded, “First of all, let him prove that accusation. I intend to take legal steps about this.” She also told the German magazine Der Spiegel that she wore the garment to test the tolerance of her fellow deputies. “They failed the test,” she said.
The secularists, however, are fanatically opposed to all expressions of Islam in Turkish life. The country’s chief prosecutor, Vural Savas, on May 7 launched one of the most draconian legal actions against the Fazilat Party. Savas likened Fazilat to a “vampire” and compared Sister Merve Kavakci to Kurdish ‘suicide bombers’. Such rhetorical flourish is designed to cover the secularists’ own fanaticism. He alleged that “her task is to blow up the system.”
If Turkey’s secular system is so fragile that it feels threatened by a Muslimah’s mere covering of her head - a religious requirement - then it deserves to be demolished. Savas, who presided over the banning of Fazilat’s predecessor, Refah, in January 1998, said he had applied to the constitutional court for closure of the party, which is likely to constitute the chief opposition in parliament. Fazilat leader Recai Kutan vowed to fight the decision.
“The indictment is a political document, not a legal one,” Kutan told reporters on May 7. “This indictment will make Turkey small in the world of civilised nations she is trying to join.”
Meanwhile thousands of people took to the streets in the central Turkish town of Malatya protesting the university’s insistence on banning girls wearing hijab at the campus. Reporters at the scene said police used teargas and armoured cars to break up the crowd of mostly male demonstrators who shouted slogans against the rector of Malatya’s university, Omer Sarlak, an anti-hijab fanatic. Many were injured and large numbers arrested. Such protests have been commonplace in recent months, as tens of thousands of Muslimahs have been excluded from higher education for refusing to expose themselves. Sister Kavakci has become an icon among these students for her stance on the issue.
Similarly, hundreds of Iranian women students rallied in Tehran on May 8 to protest the ban on wearing the headscarf in the Turkish parliament. They carried portraits of Sister Merve Kavakci and posters condemning the Turkish military. The rally was addressed by Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, a member of Iran’s Majlis, who condemned the Turkish ban as an affront to Muslims and a crime against human rights. The Iranian Human Rights Commission demanded an apology from Turkish officials for “offending the religious beliefs of the people of Turkey.”
At least 75 percent of women, despite the Kemalist ban, wear hijab in Turkey, once the seat of Khilafah and leader of the Muslim world. Sister Kavakci was elected from Istanbul, Turkey’s major urban centre; the people who voted for her were not unaware of her dress. She canvassed with her hijab on. They elected her to represent them as a hijabi Muslimah, but the Kemalists clearly believe they know best how people should behave, vote and dress.
The secularist-inspired controversy over Sister Kavakci’s hijab may yet trigger the latent resentment of the Turkish people who remain deeply attached to Islam despite 75 years of enforced Kemalism. Fazilat must now seriously consider whether indulging in party politics is the best route to follow when the secularists are not prepared to tolerate even Islamic dress. The anti-Islamic venom of the secularists must be countered by mobilising the Muslim masses of Turkey against secular fascism. Such gangsters, whether in military uniform or not, must not be allowed to hold Turkey hostage.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999