Turkey: The democratization package and its critiques

Turkey: The democratization package and its critiques
Flickr © MG_M
During the last few weeks I find it difficult to recognize people who say hello to me at work, at the university where I work in Istanbul; mostly headscarfed women. After the first surprise, I realize that actually I do know these women but I do not recognize them because a few weeks ago they were unscarfed or they were wearing wigs. For someone not familiar with Turkish reality this sounds sureal and ofcourse certain questions arise: Why were the not wearing a headscarf before? Why were they wearing wigs?  The answer is simple: Because it was not allowed.



Women working in the public sector as well as women working in the private education sector (even higher education) they were not allowed to wear headscarves, a cultural practice associated with Islam and as such a realm of political controversy and subject to restriction by Kemalist governments in the name of secularism. This is why my colleagues in order to have the right to work either took their headscarves off while at work or they were wearing a wig. However, a few weeks ago the legislation has changed and women in academia as well as in other fiels of public sector (except from women working in law, police and armed forces) thus my colleagues no longer have to take off their headscarves while at work and put it on when they leave.

There is no doubt that the changes included in the democratization package seem to be the most democratic changes after those which were introduced with the 1960s Constitution which did no last long due to the repeating coud d’ etats that tormented the country for many decades


“This is the only real change that the so called democratization package attempts to introduce” is the comment of an activist and member of one of the largest labour unions of the country and this is the opinion of other people I spoke with regarding the changes that this package pushes forward. These changes concern the Kurdish issue, minority rights such as Roma groups, the issue of political participation and the foundation of political parties, the electoral law and the participation in public demonstrations (in the aftermath of Gezi uprising)


There is no doubt that the changes included in the democratization package seem to be the most democratic changes after those which were introduced with the 1960s Constitution which did no last long due to the repeating coud d’ etats that tormented the country for many decades. Nevertheless, the objections are quite substantial. In this text, I am not going to focus on the objections of the super-nationalist section of the Turkish Parliament that speak about national treason becasuse such a critique leads to a dead-end since it begins and ends in this characterization. I choose to focus on the leftist, secular critique and this choice stems from the fact that the carriers of this critique claim that they do wish these changes to take place and that the democratization package does not make sure that they will.  It is a fruitful critique that focuses on the measurements that this package aspires to put in effect one by one without unfruitful and sterile generalizations like the Nationalist Action Party does.


“Which democratization?” is the question posed to me by a left-wing activist when I asked him about his opinion. Those measurements are just small elements of a make-believe democratization… It doesn’t face but very few issues at the core of which they supposedly aim. This is generally the opinion of the Turkish left regarding the democratization package. In short, that the package tackles with, undoubtedly serious, issues in a superficial way and obscures the causes that created these issues. There are many who claim that the package is only selectively democratazing since there is no mention at all about LGBT rights, the measurments that concern the Kurdish population are on the one hand inaplicabe and on the other hand they call for private inititative and not for public provisions, the return of property to certain monasteries of other religious dogmas is not a big deal since it is after all their property. Also the absence from the package of the issue of the Theological School of Halki is a big mistake since it raises issues of religious intolerance. Finally, the lift of the ban for the participation of public servants in political parties is something from which the ruling party has to gain a lot which means that this measure is in esence a mechanism of the strengthening of the dominance of the government.  


As mentioned above, the only trully democratizing gesture of the package is the lift on the ban for the headscarf as well as the abolishment of the civil oath that pupils used to take every morning at school as part of the educational process. This last decision was characterized by government officials as necessary due to the strong nationalist content of the oath. However, it has to be noted here that there are a few sceptics about these measures as well. These have to do with fears that exist in Turkish society during the last two decades that concern the allegedly hidden agenda of the pro-Islamic ruling party . As told by a clearly secular friend: “There are fears that the lift of the ban of the headscarf will be followed by its enforcement and that the abolishment of the civil oath will be repalaced by Fatiha (the muslim prayer)”. As was the case, until recently in Greece where pupils had to perform a religious prayer before entering the classroom…



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