Turkey and the Headscarf Ban

On May 2, 1999, Merve Safa Kavakçı, a 31-year-old newly elected lawmaker from Istanbul, was to take the oath of office in Parliament, having won a seat two weeks earlier as a member of Turkey’s new Islamist party, the Virtue Party. The problem was that Kavakçı was among the few Turkish women in politics who wore a headscarf, and no woman had ever entered the Turkish Parliament in a headscarf before.

Taking one’s shoes off had become a signifier of where one stood on the secular-versus-religious divide.

The following is an excerpt from Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, out March 21, 2017, from Columbia Global Reports. Peer will discuss his book with n+1 founding editor Marco Roth on March 28, 2017 at 7:30 the n+1 office.

On May 2, 1999, Merve Safa Kavakçı, a 31-year-old newly elected lawmaker from Istanbul, was to take the oath of office in Parliament, having won a seat two weeks earlier as a member of Turkey’s new Islamist party, the Virtue Party. The problem was that Kavakçı was among the few Turkish women in politics who wore a headscarf, and no woman had ever entered the Turkish Parliament in a headscarf before.

In those days, Turkish female lawmakers wore dress suits to Parliament. The army secretly warned President Suleyman Demirel that it might be forced to intervene if Kavakçı took oath wearing a headscarf. The leaders of her own party advised her against it, as they feared a coup. In the days before the oath ceremony the Turkish press, dominated by hardline secularists, heaped scorn and vitriol upon Kavakçı. Her marriage was discussed in news pages. Pitiless caricatures appeared in newspapers and magazines. Reporters showed up at her children’s school; teachers asked her to temporarily refrain from bringing her daughter to school.

The lawmakers’ names were called in alphabetical order. Midway through the ceremony, Kavakçı entered the central hall of the Grand National Assembly in a navy blue headscarf. As she took her place, 130 members of the ruling Democratic Left Party began banging their desks with their fists. They stared at her, rose from their seats, and for the next forty-five minutes repeated in unison: “De Sheera! De Sheera!” (“Get out! Get Out!”) “Put this woman in her place,” shouted Bülent Ecevit, the Prime Minister of Turkey and the leader of the Democratic Left Party. “I thought my heart would burst out of my chest,” Kavakçı recalled.


Turkish public life and institutions were then dominated by an authoritarian, hardline secularism installed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the general who established the modern Turkish republic in 1923 after his victorious battles against colonizing European powers. Atatürk was among a small group of military officers who were influenced by the French Jacobins’ radical revolutionary politics and absence of qualms about using violence and centralized government forces to transform society, especially in the absence of religion. Laiklik, a derivative of the French laicité, or secularity, became the dominant civic religion. Unlike the American conception of secularism, Turkish secularism had little room for religious tolerance and pluralism.

Atatürk saw Islamic practices in Turkey as regressive, and believed Western modernity was the sole path for progress. He established a constitutional republic, replaced Ottoman administrative structures with a powerful, centralized bureaucracy, and embraced state-controlled industrialization. He promoted a homogenized Turkish nationalism, which ignored the existence of ethnic groups such as the Kurds, the Alevis, and others. He banned Sufi religious orders, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, and banned traditional clothing like the fez (“an emblem of ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, and hatred of progress and civilization”) and the headscarf (“a piece of towel or something like it”).

After Atatürk’s death in 1938, the military, the ruling party, the judiciary, and the government bureaucracy—collectively identifying themselves as “the guardians of the republic”—calcified his ideas into a hardline secular orthodoxy with an authoritarian character, known as Kemalism. But far from the coastal urban center of Istanbul, the Kemalist social engineering project failed to affect the rural, religious majority in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. Discontent brewed both among religious Muslims and Kurds, whose very existence as an ethnic group was denied in the formation of a mono-ethnic nation state.

The battle between secularists and religious Turks played out over the next several decades. The Kemalists met their first successful challenger in the person of Necmettin Erbakan, an engineering professor who dominated Islamist politics in Turkey between the 1970s and the 2000s. Erbakan blamed the decline of Turkey on corrupting Western influences and sought to replace the Kemalist system with a “just order” based on Islam. Less a religious fanatic than a shrewd pragmatist, Erbakan entered into two calculated alliances with hardline secularists, who made him deputy prime minister in 1973 and 1977. During that time he made sure his followers stayed away from the often-violent battles waged between young Marxists and militant right-wing nationalists. The military overthrew the government in a coup in 1980, and for the next three years the junta crushed militant leftist activists in a brutal crackdown. Tens of thousands were arrested. Torture and enforced disappearances were widespread. Turks across ideologies remember it as one of the darkest periods of their contemporary history. 

While the Turkish left was neutralized the Iranian Revolution in 1979 energized Islamist politics across the Middle East and Asia. Turkey’s generals could feel the Islamist revolutionary winds blowing across the border from Iran, and the military junta sought to preserve order by offering concessions to religious Muslims. Turgut Özal, an economist who effectively used his professional expertise, his half-Kurdish ancestry, and his Muslim faith to form the Motherland Party and win the national elections of 1983, brought a certain normalcy to the nation by ridding the Kemalist economy of protectionism and being the first Turkish Prime Minister to go on the Hajj. To Turkey’s religious masses, Özal showed another way of being Muslim. Merve Kavakçı was 15 when Özal was elected.


Kavakçı was born in Istanbul to an academic, pious Muslim couple. The family soon moved to eastern Turkey, where her mother Gulhan taught German and her father Yusuf Ziya Kavakçı taught theology and law at Erzurum University. In 1981, the junta issued a decree ordering female students and teachers to uncover their hair and remove their headscarves. Gulhan resigned. “She was very sad when she came home,” Merve’s young sister Ravza recalled. “I still remember that university president’s name.”

The Kavakçıs returned to Istanbul. Gulhan began working in her brother’s construction company and Yusuf practiced law. When Merve enrolled in medical school, she arrived in a headscarf on the first day of class and administrators turned her away. Some women dropped out or moved overseas to continue their studies, while others began wearing wigs to cover their hair and beat the system. Merve dropped out. “Go to Iran,” she recalled secularists shouting at her on the street. Her father began searching for schools outside Turkey when a friend called from Texas with an offer: The Muslim community in Dallas was looking for an imam. He accepted.

Richardson, a suburban town of about 70,000 people, with a few thousand Asian and African-American families, welcomed the Kavakçıs. Ravza was the first student in a headscarf at Lloyd V. Berkner High School. She was pleasantly surprised by the American tolerance for her religious practices. She would try to leave school soon after the classes to reach home for afternoon prayers. The school principal inquired about her haste; she explained herself. He offered her a corner of his office. “I would pray in Mr. Clark’s office! We were filled with immense gratitude toward America.” Merve gave up medicine and studied computer science at the University of Texas in Dallas.

While the Kavakçı sisters trained in Texas, the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War ended. Turkey saw renewed contestations between the secularists and the Islamists, between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority. The economy was struggling. The Turkish military had unleashed a new war of oppression upon the Kurds. Weak, struggling political coalitions were grappling with running the country. To make matters worse, President Özal died unexpectedly while in office in April 1993; his wife claimed he was poisoned by lemonade. Merve graduated and returned to Istanbul a few months later.

The turmoil of Özal’s death once again propelled Erbakan to the forefront of Turkish politics, as his Welfare Party won municipal elections in most major cities. A protégé of Erbakan’s, a young, brash footballer and businessman named Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from a rough, working-class district of Istanbul, became mayor of the city. Merve, who had suffered enough secularist headscarf bans, wanted to play her part in winning political power for her much-ignored fellow religious Turks, and gravitated toward the charismatic Erdoğan; she joined the Welfare Party to run its foreign affairs and women’s wing. Ravza worked on the information technology team at the Istanbul Municipality. A year later the Welfare Party emerged as the single largest party during the general elections, and Erbakan became prime minister. He sought a reversal of secular practices, tried to re-orient Turkey away from its Western allies, began speaking of an “Islamic NATO,” and blamed Jewish people for the crusades and capitalism, calling for “the Jewish bacteria” to be cured. The military had had enough, and forced Erbakan to resign after only a year in office. The staunchly secular constitutional court abolished his Welfare Party and banned Erbakan from politics for five years. In December 1998, his followers launched the Virtue Party. Merve Kavakçı was chosen to run for Parliament, and she won handily.


Faced with 130 angry lawmakers pounding their fists on their desks and shouting at her, Merve was whisked out of the Parliament building; she never took her oath of office. She was labeled an agent of Iran; President Süleyman Demirel called her an “agent provocateur.” A prosecutor filed a case against her under the notorious Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, for “inciting religious or racial hatred,” which imposes a three-year term of imprisonment. It was the same article used to jail Erdoğan in 1997, when as mayor of Istanbul he publicly recited a poem that included the lines, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets . . . ” Even though the poet Ziya Gökalp is considered the father of Turkish nationalism, and was a Kemalist and even anti-Islamist, Erdoğan’s speech was ruled religiously provocative, and he had to forfeit his position as mayor, serve four months in jail, and was banned from politics for five years.

Two weeks after the aborted swearing in ceremony, Merve was stripped of Turkish citizenship because she failed to inform the government that she had become an American citizen. She lost her parliamentary seat, and a few months later she left Turkey for the United States for a second time. Eventually the Constitutional Court dissolved the Virtue Party after finding it guilty of violating the secular spirit of the Turkish constitution. The ban triggered a split in the Turkish Islamist movement, which had been dominated by Erbakan for almost four decades. A younger, more moderate group of politicians led by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, a former economics professor, left Erbakan and founded the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP. Erdoğan and Gül avoided overtly Islamist rhetoric and described themselves as “conservative democrats” who supported the free market and Turkey’s membership in the European Union. Secularists remained skeptical about their claims, fearing the party was masking a hidden Islamic agenda.

In February 2001, a month after Erdoğan founded the AKP, the economy collapsed. One-third of the GDP was wiped out. For decades the economy had relied heavily on foreign investment, and the government ran up a huge debt that it in turn relied on the banks to buy up. The government’s inability to establish stable political coalitions, its war with the Kurds, and mounting corruption scandals, caused foreign investors to pull their funds over the years; when the crash came, a third of Turkish banks went under.

The lone bright spot was the AKP, which had run its cities competently and was untainted by corruption. In 2002 the party won the general elections with 32 percent of the vote. Gül became prime minister, but Erdoğan, who was still ostensibly banned from politics, was always the true leader. When Erdoğan took over in 2003, he defied his critics by earnestly embracing Turkey’s bid for the European Union, pushing democratic reforms in order to start negotiations for accession, and following the guidelines of an IMF recovery package secured by his predecessors. Foreign direct investment into Turkey returned. Erdoğan placed great emphasis on infrastructure, and highways expanded by thousands of miles. Turkish cities grew; office towers and apartment blocks became ubiquitous. Airports sprang up even in small cities. Access to affordable public housing and healthcare improved radically. Shopping malls, including one with the Trump name, were being built in every Turkish city. The AKP’s shopping mall culture also opened public spaces for a more diverse populace, welcoming among their customers both the secularist elite and the religious Turks, including headscarf-wearing women who were barred from universities and governmental buildings.

After five years in power, the AKP faced its most severe challenge from the old establishment—the military and the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, or the CHP. In the spring of 2007, the AKP decided to nominate Abdullah Gül to the ceremonial post of the President. The CHP objected, raising the specter of Islamization by bringing up Gül’s past in Islamist parties and his wife’s headscarf, and boycotted national elections. The army website posted a note threatening to “make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism.” Turks called it the first “e-coup.” As the military orchestrated massive demonstrations, Erdoğan simply refused to back down. “Erdoğan showed mettle as a politician. He stared back at the military and took the gamble. He went to the people with new elections, reminding them of his record in office,” a Turkish economist told me. In the following general elections, the AKP won 47 percent of the votes to the CHP’s 21 percent. Political scientist Omer Taspinar described it as “less a victory of Islam over secularism than a victory for the new democratic, pro-market, globally connected Turkey over the old authoritarian, statist, and introverted one.” Nevertheless, Erdoğan had decisively crushed Kemalism, the dominant political philosophy of Turkey since 1923. The victory set the stage for the AKP to transform the country.


Turkey’s negotiations to enter the European Union meant the AKP had to improve the nation’s abysmal record on minority rights. A series of democratic reforms displaying commitment to European Union values—while serving as a rebuff to Kemalist taboos—followed. Erdoğan’s Turkey saw greater integration with European markets, although the accession process was to turn into a long journey to nowhere because of Turkey’s conflict with Cyprus (which was granted EU membership), its inability to meet a range of economic and political conditions, and the discomfort within Europe about admitting a large Muslim nation into the fold. Despite official pronouncements, Turkey’s European dream has largely been halted since 2006.

Yet the EU accession process did cause the Erdoğan government to improve the lot of Turkey’s oppressed and neglected non-Muslim minorities. The Kemalist republic was threatened by ethnic minorities, who were seen to dilute the nation’s unity. The Kemalists resented that the merchants of Istanbul were mostly Greeks, Armenians, and Jews and sought to establish an ethnic Turkish business elite. One of the most discriminatory acts of the Turkish republic was the promulgation of the 1935 Law on Foundations, which kept Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities from buying and maintaining land and property for houses of worship, schools, and other buildings. Minority groups, who formed a significant part of the Istanbul merchant class, were also targeted with a wealth tax that forced many to close their businesses and sell their properties. More than a thousand Christians and Jews failed to pay the punitive tax and were deported to a labor camp. Most Greeks left the country after the Istanbul pogrom of 1955. A host of the remaining minority-owned properties were seized in 1980 after the military coup.

By the time the AKP came to power, barely a million Christians and Jews lived among Turkey’s 80 million Muslims. Two synagogues and several churches are functioning in Istanbul, but these already tiny religious communities have shrunk further under prejudice and neglect. Erdoğan made incremental legal changes to restore the rights of Turkey’s minority citizens. He repealed laws to allow minority foundations to receive grants from foreign countries with official permission; churches and synagogues were granted the legal status of “places of worship”; restrictions on minority community schools were eased; the Law on Foundations was modified to allow minorities to re-acquire properties that had been snatched and sold by the state. Turkey’s record on equal citizenship for non-Muslim minority groups still requires a significant improvement. “It is not when you walk down the street. The prejudice shows in the dealings with the bureaucracy. When you say your name, they can tell you are Greek or Armeniain,” Etyan Mahcupyan, a Turkish-Armenian intellectual, told me. “We have traditionally been the merchant class. We are very middle class but there are no Armenians or Greeks in the Turkish government or bureaucracy. Even if you applied you wouldn’t be hired.”

The biggest injustice that needed to be corrected was the one against the Kurds. The campaign of pacification carried out by the Turkish military in the 1990s was one of remorseless brutality. The army depopulated some 4,000 villages and burned down the forests of Eastern Anatolia to deprive the Kurdish guerillas of sanctuaries. Kurdish language was banned; identifying yourself as a Kurd was a crime. By the late 1990s, Turkey’s Kurdish war had cost around 30,000 lives.

If the portrait of Atatürk hangs from every peg in cities and villages, the face that towers over the southeastern Kurdish region of Turkey is that of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK. In February 1999, Turkish commandoes—reportedly with American and Israeli help—captured Öcalan in Kenya. Öcalan was moved to İmralı, a small island about 80 miles southwest of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, and placed in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with a small yard, the aquatic expanse of the Marmara hidden from his sight by prison walls. For a decade, Öcalan was the only prisoner on İmralı—its most famous inmate before him had been Billy Hayes, the American drug peddler whose escape led to a best-selling book and the eponymous movie, Midnight Express.

The rise of the AKP—a political party that had always opposed the military—created the mood for a new tack on the Kurdish question. Erdoğan emerged as the politician who would go the furthest to speak to the Kurds. “The Kurdish problem is my problem,” he said. Erdoğan lifted the ban on Kurdish language, and the Kurds were allowed to teach in their native tongue as well as set up radio and television networks. Peace with the Kurds could bring dividends: an end to a long war that would save billions of dollars; progress in negotiations with the EU; even votes for the AKP. Erdoğan and his administration conducted negotiations with the jailed Öcalan, and in 2013 the PKK announced a ceasefire.

That October, after 11 years in power, Erdoğan defied the last Kemalist taboo and officially lifted the ban on headscarves for women working in the Turkish government and other state institutions. “A dark time eventually comes to an end,” Erdoğan said. “Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it.” A year later, the headscarf ban was removed for high school students as well. Yet there was still no woman with a headscarf in Parliament.

In the meantime, Merve Kavakçı had earned a masters degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Howard University, and had taught at several east coast universities. In 2015 she returned home after sixteen years. She found a teaching position at Uskudar University, a small, private school in an upper-class neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. The students played on their smartphones, and young women wore streaks of color in their flowing tresses, their stylish, colorful headscarves covering their hair. One could forget that a battle stretching over half a century had been waged over letting a girl wear a headscarf on a campus. The woman who had become the symbol of that battle was now grading undergraduate papers.

A few flights of stairs led to me to a corridor lined with faculty offices. Merve Kavakçı, Professor of Post-Colonial Studies, sat in a long, blue coat behind a neatly arranged desk. Now in her late forties, Kavakçı was excited over a new research project about the representation of footwear in the Turkish press. “We will attempt to answer how different practices of wearing shoes (wearing shoes/not wearing shoes in the house, or leaving shoes in front of the door or not, or wearing slippers or not) are represented in television series, literature, news and television programs and how it can be analyzed within the self-colonizing arguments,” the synopsis of “Putting Yourself in Someone’s Shoes” read.

I had grown up with the practice of leaving shoes outside our home. Most of the billion-plus people in South Asia, be they Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or Buddhists, did so. In Turkey, however, taking one’s shoes off had become a signifier of where one stood on the secular-versus-religious divide. “The Turkish press would write derogatorily about Erdoğan and his wife that they take off their shoes when they enter their home,” Kavakçı said. “It was meant to show them as religious fanatics, people who treated their homes like a mosque, who prayed at home, so left the shoes outside.”

The shoe was now on the other foot. Kavakçı’s younger sister, Ravza, had also graduated with a doctorate from Howard University, and she also returned home to join the AKP. One evening the sisters visited Erdoğan, who told Ravza that she should run for Parliament. Ravza was chosen as one of AKP’s parliamentary candidates for Istanbul and won.

On June 23, 2015, Ravza Kavakçı entered Parliament in a long, blue coat. Merve had kept the navy-blue headscarf she wore when she was kicked out of the same body in the summer of 1999. Ravza wore it that day; twenty other female lawmakers in headscarves joined her. “When I walk down the parliament, they address me as Merve’s sister,” she told me when I met her one afternoon last fall. “It took us sixteen years. Look, I am standing here, in this parliament!”

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