Four female legislators wearing headscarves have walked into Turkey’s parliament in Ankara, marking an end to the early 1920s ban on the Muslim symbol imposed in the early days of the Turkish Republic.
Thursday’s symbolic action highlighted an emerging trend in Turkey where the issue of headscarves remains highly sensitive as it is viewed by secularists a sign of political Islam in stark contrast to the republic’s strongly secular traditions.
The four MPs – Sevde Beyazit Kacar, Gulay Samanci, Nurcan Dalbudak and Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey are members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has Islamist roots and has gained a strong following in this nation of 74 million.
AKP legislators declared the ban on headscarves as a civil rights issue that had prevented religious women from expressing themselves freely in Turkish politics.
“I have always said that we overlooked the problem of equality between men and women, but today I think we are finally solving this problem,” said Oznur Calik, a member of the ruling party.
The issue has continually been a highly contentious and public issue. In 1999, a newly elected member of parliament, Merve Kavakci, tried to take her oath while wearing a headscarf. The left-leaning prime minister at the time, Bulent Ecevit, told MPs to “put this woman in her place.”
Kavakci left the building while some of her colleagues chanted for her to “get out.” Kavakci lost her seat in 2001.
The restrictions on headscarves in government buildings were loosened as part of reforms aimed at boosting democracy unveiled by Erdogan in September, but the ban still remains in place for judges, prosecutors, military and security personnel.
The AKP’s reformist push has been criticised by Turks fearing the rise of Islam in the official sphere, but legislators from the main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, said it had decided not to react to the four MPs’ actions.
What women can wear has been a political battleground in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
France, meanwhile, in 2011 became the first European nation to ban the public use of face veils, infuriating many Muslims who felt their religious community was being singled out for discrimination.