Gulay Samanci, a member of parliament, wearing a headscarf as she attends a general assembly at the Turkish parliament on Thursday. Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
Four female lawmakers from Turkey's Islamist-rooted ruling party wore their Islamic headscarves, or hijabs, in parliament Thursday, in a challenge to the country's secular tradition.
In 1999, the last time a lawmaker attempted to wear the headscarf in parliament, she was expelled from the assembly. On Thursday, however, the deputy parliament speaker merely called for a recess after the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which labeled the move “insincere” and politically motivated, called for a debate on the issue.
“We are going to witness the start of an important era, and we will play the leading role. We will be the standard bearers,” said Nurcan Dalbudak, one of the four Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers who wore a headscarf to parliament for the first time.
The headscarf is an emotive symbol in Turkey. Secularists view it as the emblem of political Islam and consider its appearance in public life an affront to the Turkish Republic's secular foundations set up by founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
While there are no specific restrictions on wearing the headscarf in parliament, vehement opposition from secularists, and a ban in other state institutions — which was lifted earlier this month — have long deterred women from wearing them.
Dalbudak and fellow AKP lawmakers Sevde Beyazit Kacar, Gulay Samanci and Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey previously announced that they would attend the general assembly on Thursday wearing their headscarves, giving the CHP ample time to determine its reaction.
At a closed-door meeting ahead of Thursday's controversial walk-in, the opposition party decided it would not “fall into AKP’s trap” by overreacting.
"All our members are in agreement. That is, we think the AKP is exploiting religion. We will never remain silent towards actions aimed at eliminating the principle of secularism," CHP lawmaker Dilek Akagun Yilmaz told Reuters.
Despite substantial opposition, Thursday’s move was well received compared with the 1999 incident, when Merve Kavakci, a member of parliament from the Islamist Virtue Party, a predecessor of the AKP, was expelled for wearing her headscarf to a swearing-in ceremony.
Bulent Ecevit, the prime minister at the time, addressed the packed assembly, saying: "This is not the place to challenge the state. Inform this woman of her limits!" while half the chamber stood shouting: "Get out! Get out!" to the seated Kavakci.
The Virtue Party was closed down in 2001 for violating the secularist articles of the constitution, and several lawmakers, including Kavakci, were banned from politics for five years.
Nazli Ilicak, then a fellow Virtue Party lawmaker who before Kavakci's expulsion sat next to her in parliament, welcomed the AKP lawmakers' decision and commented before the Thursday showing that she did not expect a repeat of 1999.
"This is a positive development,” Ilicak said. “People are now a little embarrassed about what they did in the past.”
The highly anticipated walk-in came only weeks after the AKP lifted a decades-old ban on women wearing the headscarf in state institutions as part of a package of reforms the government says are meant to expand democracy.
But the debate around the headscarf strikes at the heart of tensions between religious and secular elites, a fault line in Turkish public life.
Restrictions on headscarves at universities have already been eased under the AKP. Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan point to this and other policies, such as restrictions on the sale of alcohol, as proof that his party is seeking to erode secularism in Turkey.
Supporters of Erdogan, whose wife also wears the headscarf, say the Turkish leader is simply redressing the balance and restoring freedom of religious expression to a Muslim majority.
Erdogan called on lawmakers to respect the deputies' choice to don their headscarves.
"There is no by-law in parliament that prevents this, and everyone must respect the decision taken by our sisters on this subject," he said. "They have been elected by the nation and are representatives of the nation in parliament."
Some opponents have criticized the timing of these steps, however, saying the decisions were aimed at garnering support ahead of an election cycle. That accusation was dismissed by Dalbudak, who said her action had been based solely on personal belief.
"I am very happy and proud because I am completing one of the foremost duties required of me," she said. "I am experiencing an inner peace because of this. This has nothing to do with investing in an election."
Al Jazeera with Reuters