MP loses her citizenship over a scarf

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The Independent Online
Kavakci: Fled parliament

A FEMALE Turkish MP who provoked the fury of parliament and the secular establishment by wearing an Islamic headscarf may have to flee the country. Merve Kavakci was stripped of her Turkish citizenship yesterday, less than a month after her election.

Ostensibly, the move came because Ms Kavakci had broken Turkey's dual citizenship laws by taking US citizenship without seeking permission. But the real cause is the headscarf she always wears tightly wrapped around her head.

When Ms Kavakci tried to take her parliamentary oath while wearing the headscarf two weeks ago, there was uproar. She fled the chamber to chants of "Out! Out!" led by the ruling party of the Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit.

That provoked pro-Islamic demonstrations as far away as the Iranian capital, Tehran. Turkey's President, Suleyman Demirel, accused Ms Kavakci of working as an agent for foreign countries trying to promote radical Islam in Turkey, and named Iran as one. A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, responded with a sermon branding the Turkish authorities as bigoted.

It is hard to believe a small piece of silk could cause so much trouble, and in truth most women in this overwhelmingly Muslim country wear headscarves. Miniskirts may be common in the big westernised cities, such as Istanbul, but a woman who does not cover her head is a rare sight in rural Anatolia.

But, to her opponents, Ms Kavakci's headscarf is proof that her party wants to introduce Islamic rule. Secularism is enshrined in Turkey's constitution, but in recent years Islamist movements have gained popularity. The military, which holds the real power in Turkey, has reacted by launching a fierce crackdown on political Islam. Headscarves of the sort worn by Ms Kavakci have been banned in government offices, schools and universities. On Friday, there were fresh demonstrations in the eastern city of Malatya when students wearing headscarves were barred from university exams.

Ms Kavakci's Virtue party lost heavily in recent elections, but that does not appear to have dampened the generals' ardour. The Chief Prosecutor is demanding that the whole party be closed down, and is citing Ms Kavakci and her headscarf as evidence that the party is a threat to the constitution.

As for the woman at the centre of the furore, she has been away from the public eye since the trouble began. When I met her before the election, Ms Kavakci seemed to have little idea of the storm she was about to cause. Now she has lost her citizenship, and will almost certainly lose her parliamentary seat as well.