The Turkish parliament has up to now been a forbidden area for women wearing a headscarf. And in the labour market women who cover their hair are discriminated against. Aynur Bayram tries to change that by standing as an independent candidate in the upcoming general elections.
A hundred thousand votes. That’s how many votes Aynur Bayram (30) has to collect in one of the two districts in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a city of more than 5 million inhabitants. If she succeeds, she will take an oath a few weeks after the elections and become an MP. With headscarf. The first ever in the Turkish parliament. Bayram: ‘Many people say the time isn’t right for it yet. But when is the time right then? It only takes courage.’
There is courage needed indeed. The last woman with a headscarf in Turkey who was elected as a representative, Merve Kavakci, was booed out of parliament before she got the chance to take the oath. That was in 1999, and since then no party has dared to put scarfed women on their candidates list. The courage to conquer the bastion of male power and strict secularism comes from one woman during the elections on June 12th.
Aynur Bayram: ‘I am a journalist and I wrote a column for an internet paper about when women with a scarf can finally become MP’s, now that the big political parties ’haven’t come good once again. I got a lot of reactions, also from a man who said: ‘Why don’t you become an independent candidate yourself? You’ve got my support!’ She made her decision in a day: ‘More than sixty percent of the women in Turkey wear a headscarf, it’s about time they got a voice.’
For outsiders it’s sometimes hard to comprehend: almost a hundred percent of the Turkish population is Muslim and more than sixty percent of the women cover their heads, but being an active member of all parts of society is impossible. The best known example is the university: for years women couldn’t enter university grounds wearing a scarf. Less well known is that these women are also disadvantaged in the labour market. An academic career is out of the question, working in the public service is forbidden and also in business life they are in general not welcome. And do you want to change that in the most suitable place to influence laws, the parliament? Too bad.
Turkish secularism is responsible for that: religion belongs at home and in the mosque, not in the public sphere. The laws that embody that secularism are not very clear, and mainly women are victims: male pious Muslims are less recognizable. Only the prohibition of headscarves (and beards) is explicitly mentioned in the law, other ‘bans’ are based on jurisdiction. This jurisdiction is again based on the constitution, which states that none of the civil rights in the constitution may be used ‘with the goal of endangering the existence of the democratic and secular republic’. And the headscarf, strict secularists believe, endangers secularism because it is a symbol of political Islam.
That’s why the Constitutional Court, part of the secular establishment, usually gives priority to that article, instead of to constitutional guarantees like the freedom of religious belief, the right to education and the right to work. Usually, but not always. Which makes the day-to-day situation rather unpredictable, and the possibilities to study or work change according to which way the political wind is blowing. The situation at universities is a clear example of that: now the headscarf is allowed, based on a statement by a state education institute, but that could also change again.
By the way: even in parliament the headscarf is not explicitly forbidden. The parliament’s dress code doesn’t say anything about it, and in the end it’s up to the chairman of the parliament to decide what is allowed and what is not. And the chairs never had to speak out about the subject, because it never got that far. Not even in the case of Merve Kavakci, because she was already booed out of parliament before the chair could speak.
That women with a scarf can’t work for the state also has a huge impact on business life. Dilek Cindoglu, sociologist at the Political Science Faculty of Bilkent University in Ankara, last year published the report ‘Headscarf ban and discrimination, professional women in the labour market’. In her report Cindoglu writes that women with a good education often get jobs in which they also have contacts outside their own company. Also with the state. For that reason a company doesn’t easily choose to appoint a woman with a scarf to such a job.
Outside the office
Cindoglu’s report is full of examples of headscarfed professionals who are hampered in their careers. Lawyers who aren’t allowed to enter the courthouse, a sociologist who works for a think-tank but is never sent on assignments outside the office, like conferences, an engineer who is never taken to meetings with customers, unlike her colleagues without the scarf. Working independently? Same problem: as an entrepreneur you are also in touch with both state and business life, and that doesn’t make doing business any easier.
Aynur Bayram, independent parliamentary candidate from Ankara, has had similar experiences. She studied journalism (with a wig covering her scarf) and could then start as reporter for a local paper in Ankara, where she still works now. Aynur: ‘Last year I finally got my official press card. Usually with that it’s easy to enter the parliament building, but not for me. I can’t do my work properly because of that.’
She has till June 12th to convince 10,000 voters in Ankara to vote for her. ‘How much money do I have for my campaign? Nothing’, she admits. ‘But I do get a lot of support. Photographers who offer to take pictures for free, printing houses offer to print posters without charge, and there is an offer for a loudspeaker car to go out into the streets. Also financial support is promised.’
Bayram sure does have a chance of making it into the parliament. Before the candidates’ lists for the elections were completed, the opposition parties announced that they wouldn’t object to MP’s with a headscarf. By doing that, they challenged governing party AKP, a party of devout Muslims and a natural supporter of covered women. Dozens of headscarfed women applied for a place on the AKP’s candidate list, but only one woman made it. And she was put too low on the list to have even the slightest chance of being elected.
Vows of the opposition
AKP tries to get the image that they do support headscarfed women, but are also afraid of causing trouble in parliament, or even in court – there has been a banning case against the AKP before because of ‘un-secular activities’. Disappointing, but it seems that at least the era in which MP’s boo women out of parliament for covering their heads is over.
But how much resistance there really is, that remains to be seen. Because there are no set laws, the parliament’s Speaker can also decide that Bayram cannot take her oath – if she is elected. And what are the vows of the opposition worth? Nobody ever heard of rock hard promises in Turkish politics, and the voters of the biggest opposition party are overwhelmingly against headscarves in public places.
And if it all does happen, then what? What can Bayram do to improve the position of women like her? ‘Just representing these women is in itself important’, she says. ‘And by the way, I’m not only concerned about women with a headscarf, but about women’s issues in general. It’s a worldwide problem that women have too few positions that really matter. And Turkey has had only one female Prime Minister. If I am elected, I will advocate women’s issues and freedom. May Allah support me.’