ANKARA: Four female lawmakers from Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government attended parliament Thursday wearing headscarves for the first time, breaking a long taboo in the staunchly secular country.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lifted on September 30 a decades-old ban on headscarves in the civil service as part of a package of reforms meant to improve democracy and freedoms.
However, the ban remains in place for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel.
In 1999, Turkish American lawmaker Merve Kavakci arrived in parliament wearing a headscarf for her swearing-in ceremony — first time legally since founding of the modern republic 90 years ago.
But she was booed out of the house and then had her Turkish citizenship revoked.
The headscarf is a sensitive symbol in Turkey as it is viewed by secularists a sign of political Islam in stark contrast to the republic’s strongly secular traditions.
“There is nothing in parliamentary bylaws that stands as an obstacle to this,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.
“Everyone should respect our sisters’ decision… They are the nation’s representatives in parliament,” he said.
The Turkish premier, whose wife wears a headscarf, said that opposing the wearing of headscarves in parliament was “disrespect to parliament and their faith.” The four women began wearing headscarves after they made the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca this year.
“I will no longer take off my headscarf,” one of the women, Gonul Bekin Sahkulubey, was quoted as saying by 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”.
But his opponents have branded the lifting of the ban a political manoeuvre as the country braces for an election cycle beginning with municipal polls in March next year.
The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accused the AKP of undermining the country’s secular traditions and abusing religious feelings to gain electoral votes.
“In Turkey, undermining the state’s secular traditions is tantamount to undermining the society,” said CHP lawmaker Engin Altay.
“What will happen if a lawmaker wears a burka in parliament?” he asked.