Turkey's women put the headscarf issue to test

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SHE MAY wear the traditional Islamic headscarf despised by Turkey's secular authorities, but Merve Kavakei insists she never mixes politics and religion. A 31-year-old computer engineer, she is the new public face of Turkey's controversial Islamist movement.

Ms Kavakei is one of 17 women candidates representing the Islamist Virtue Party in elections set for 18 April. Her Istanbul constituency is a safe Virtue seat and the party is hoping she and her fellow women will show it is no threat to the secularism which is enshrined in Turkey's constitution.

Virtue is the largest group in the current parliament, and has strong electoral support. But it has little chance of gaining power: the military has made it clear that it would strongly oppose a Virtue government.

Two years ago, the generals forced the country's first Islamist government to resign. Since then many leading Islamists have been jailed and their party, Welfare, has been closed by the courts.

"Virtue is a completely different party," Ms Kavakei insists. "The policies are different and the image is different. We women make it different."

This is the first time women have stood as Islamist election candidates. Ms Kavakei insists it is women's issues that top her agenda. "I went into politics because women are under-represented in parliament. I meet women who are opposed to our policies, but are supporting me because I'm a woman. That makes me so proud."

Women have always been at the centre of Turkey's Islamist controversy. As part of the military-led crackdown, headscarves like Ms Kavakei's have been banned in schools, universities and government offices, prompting mass protests.

Some Turkish analysts say the change in Islamist policies is purely cosmetic. "They say they're committed to human rights, but the only rights they're talking about are freedom of religious expression," says Professor Ali Carkoglu, of Istanbul's Bogazici University.

And if Ms Kavakei is the new face of Turkey's Islamist movement, the old faces are never far away. Virtue's MPs are trying to pave the way for the return of their leader. Necmettin Erbakan was prime minister when the Islamists were forced out and he was banned from politics for five years.

Now Virtue is trying to push a change in the law through parliament so Mr Erbakan and other convicted Islamists can be pardoned. The party is taking advantage of parliamentary chaos caused by a a group of maverick MPs who are trying to cancel the elections.

Virtue said yesterday it was committed to April polls, but despite this, its opponents say that behind moderates like Ms Kavakei lurk Welfare's hardline personalities and policies.

Ms Kavakei has already whipped up a controversy of her own. Unlike some other women Virtue candidates, she refuses to take off her headscarf, but if she is elected, there is no guarantee she will be allowed to wear her headscarf in parliament.

"Fifty-four per cent of thepopulation is women, and half of them wear the headscarf," she protests. "They need to be represented in parliament. All anybody wants to talk about is the headscarf. It's what's inside your head that counts."