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Female Turkish MPs break headscarf taboo

© AFP

Video by Catherine VIETTE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-11-01

For the first time in 14 years, four female members of Turkey’s ruling APK party donned Muslim headscarves in parliament, a bold statement that the opposition fears undermines the country’s secular traditions.

Four female members of Ankara’s Islamic-rooted government attended a parliament session on Thursday wearing headscarves, a first in 14 years in secular Turkey.

The last time a headscarf was seen in Parliament was when Turkish-American MP Merve Kavakci turned up for her swearing-in ceremony in Islamic dress. She was booed out of the house and eventually had her Turkish citizenship revoked.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lifted a decades-old ban on headscarves in the civil service in early October as part of a package of reforms meant to improve democracy and freedoms.

"Everyone should respect our sisters' decision,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose wife is always seen in public with her head covered. “They are the nation's representatives in parliament.”

Undermining secular traditions?

But the headscarf is a sensitive symbol in Turkey, where it is viewed by secularists a sign of political Islam that clashes with the country’s strongly secular traditions.

When the APK overturned the ban on Muslim garb, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) accused the government of undermining those secular traditions and abusing religious feelings to gain electoral votes ahead of local elections in March 2013.

"In Turkey, undermining the state's secular traditions is tantamount to undermining society," said CHP lawmaker Engin Altay. "What will happen if a lawmaker wears a burka in parliament?"

Towards ‘normalisation’

The four women began covering their heads after they made the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca which is an obligation for all Muslims, this year.

"I will no longer take off my headscarf," one of the women, Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey, told the Milliyet newspaper.

"(Wearing a) headscarf and other religious issues are between the believer and his God... I expect everyone to respect my decision," she added.

The AKP pledged to remove the ban on headscarves in all domains when it came to power in 2002 and has already relaxed the ban at universities.

The latest measures were hailed by Erdogan as a "step towards normalisation".

Date created : 2013-10-31

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