Turkey: headscarf-clad women seek electoral office

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2011 5:51 AM
Turkey: headscarf-clad women seek electoral office

Fatma Bostan Unsal says she was barred from taking an exam for doctoral studies at a Turkish university because she wore an Islamic headscarf, so she traveled abroad to study.

Now she faces a new hurdle: she wants to run for parliament in June elections despite secular rules that bar religious attire in government settings.

Unsal is among a dozen Islamic headscarf-wearing women who have applied to be parliamentary candidates for Turkey's Islam-based ruling party. Their aspirations lay down a tricky challenge for the Justice and Development Party, which has denounced laws restricting headscarves in some Turkish settings but seeks to avoid a backlash from entrenched secular circles.

"A democracy where a large number of women are not represented is a democracy with deficiencies," Unsal, a founder of the party, said in an interview with the Associated Press in the office of a women's group led by devout Muslims.

Still, nominations close next week and none of the headscarf-clad women have yet been selected despite a campaign to press party leaders to field them as candidates. Nine percent of the 550 lawmakers in parliament are women; two-thirds of the female legislators belong to the ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose wife and daughters wear headscarves.

Surveys show the ruling party, vying for a third term in office, is the front-runner ahead of the June 12 vote. But while the government regards the female head covering as a question of personal expression and freedom, it appears wary of confronting opponents who command support in staunchly secular institutions.

"I am for the election of a deputy with a headscarf in principle, but I am not sure the time has come for that," said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.

Buoyed by electoral triumphs, the government has steadily dismantled the powers of the military and the courts, which have long upheld bans on religious dress in schools and public offices, part of the secular legacy of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

President Abdullah Gul's wife, who wears a headscarf, had long kept a low profile to dampen secularist opposition to her presence at the presidential palace, once home to Ataturk. But she now appears at public functions, reflecting an increasing mood of national acceptance.

Universities are openly allowing headscarf-clad students on their campuses after the government-appointed head of a body that oversees universities decreed that no student can be thrown out of class for violating dress codes. For the first time this year, students were allowed to sit university entrance exams without removing the head coverings.

Even some secularists have argued that the headscarf ban can only apply to civil servants and not to elected legislators.

Erdogan seems to have deferred the matter until after the election. He has promised his government will rewrite the Constitution to bring more freedoms, including for headscarf-wearing, if it wins a strong mandate in June.

Many in the party are haunted by the memory of Merve Kavakci, a politician who soon after being elected to parliament in 1999 was prevented from taking the oath and thrown out of the assembly hall amid thuds of banging on desks and shouts of "Get out!" by fellow lawmakers. They were outraged that she entered parliament with the Islamic covering.

In 2008, Erdogan's party narrowly escaped being shut by the Constitutional Court, which ruled it was violating Turkey's secular constitution and cut off state aid. The court stated a failed attempt by the party to lift a ban on Islamic attire at university campuses as evidence against the party.

Unsal, 46, one of a core of 60 people who founded Erdogan's party in 2001, was an activist who traveled to Baghdad in 2003 to act as a "human shield" to try to prevent U.S. strikes on Iraq. She said she would run as an independent if the party shies away from naming headscarf-wearing candidates.

"That unlawfulness has to be rectified," said Unsal, dressed in a figure-hiding long denim jacket, and a red and brown, floral-patterned headscarf pinned beneath her chin.

A survey by the Metropoll research company in March showed that 78 percent of Turks would consider a headscarf-clad legislator "as normal."

The main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, has relaxed its hostility toward headscarves at universities. But its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, indicated disapproval of head coverings in parliament.

"Everyone is free to wear what they like outside, nobody can interfere with that," he said. However, he said, "We all have to obey rules."

Like many devout Turkish women with means, Unsal studied abroad, becoming a research associate at Georgetown University in the United States in 2001 and then moving to Malaysia's International Islamic University to pursue a doctorate in political science.

Before traveling to Malaysia, she headed Erdogan's party's human rights unit until her husband was elected to parliament. The soft-spoken mother of two teenage boys has worked as a women's activist as well as in English teaching and translation.

At the office where the AP interview was held, women all wore headscarves and visitors were asked to take off their shoes. Unsal politely refused to shake hands with a male photographer, citing her faith. She quoted from polls suggesting 65 percent of Turkish women, out of a national population of 74 million, cover their hair.

"This is inappropriate," she said of the lack of headscarf-wearing legislators in parliament. "Allowing this to continue is tantamount to accepting the injustice."