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RELIGIOUS BODIES AND THE SECULAR STATE: THE MERVE KAVAKCI AFFAIR Kim Shively 0T In May 1999 a "scandal" erupted in Turkey involving an elected representative from Istanbul, a veiled woman named Merve Kavakçi. This woman entered the Turkish parliament to take an oath of allegiance to the Turkish State, but the very presence ofa veiled woman in the parliament ofthe secular Turkish Republic provoked a reaction so intense and pervasive that the Turkish government erupted in condemnation, citizens took to the streets in protest, and the woman herselfended up barred from herjob and stripped of her citizenship. Indeed, the reaction to Kavakçi's parliamentary debut was remarkably dramatic and consuming in terms of national discursive focus and energy and in terms ofmedia time. To give some context to the Kavakçi affair, it is important to understand that a central tenet ofthe Turkish political establishment holds that strict adherence to secularist principles is essential to the formation ofthe enlightened, modern Western-style nation Turkey aspires to be. Secularist principles are a matter of constitutional import and are articulated and rearticulated in various public arenas such as in political discourse, school curricula, national ceremonies, etc. As such, the mainstream media and the secular government have cast public expressions ofMuslim religious conservatism as violations of the secularist order—violations that require state regulation. Women who wear a conservative Muslim veil (tesettür') especially have been targeted. This form of veiling is politically sensitive, since many in the Turkish establishment see it as an affront to the "principles and revolutions" of Mustafa Kemal Atatiirk, the founder of the modern JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES VoL 1. Na 3 (Fall 2005). C 2005 KIM SHIVELY œ 47 Turkish state. The early twentieth-century reforms of Atatürk sought to de-establish religion from the political arena—that is, he adopted the Western idea that religion and politics were distinct categories that could and should be kept conceptually and practically distinct. He also attempted to expunge many traditional Muslim practices, such as veiling, from public life in an effort to establish what he saw as a modern rational Westernized nation. As Nilüfer GoIe argues (1996:132-3), Kemalist Westernization is not an organic process of reform but a civilizational project "by which local patterns and traditional values are dismissed and devalorized...[and] local Islam, which is considered alien to rationalist and positivist values, is expelled" in favor of the universalist claims of "civilization," with its suppression of national ethnic and religious differences and its emphasis on the imagined commonalities of all people. As such, the appearance of veiled students and nurses at the secular universities and in hospitals in recent years has become, for many, alarming signs ofa resurgence ofantirational, anti-Western forces seeking to upend Atatiirk's civilizational project. More dire, the presence ofveiled women in secular institutions has been a possible indication of the rise of Islamism, especially the type of radical Islam bent on the overthrow of the secular Turkish state. The threat perceived in the tesettiir, as well as the insult it presents to Kemalism2, has led the state to curtail the movement of veiled women in the public (i.e., government) arena, barring such women from public jobs, some forms of education, and government positions (see Olson 1985; GoIe 1996). Thus, the response to Merve Kavakçi's debut in the parliament was simply the most dramatic example of a preexisting pattern of state reactions to veiled women in certain public places. This paper will attempt to explicate the long-standing debate around veiling in Turkish society and how those issues became focused in the Kavakçi affair. I will use the Kavakçi case first to demonstrate that secularist discourse regarding Kavakçi and other veiled women represents the Kemalist establishment's attempts to shore up an already fragile national identity. In this sense, the Kavakçi affair is closely linked to the Turkish state's ongoing conflict with the Kurdish ethnic minority, in that both Kurdish separatism and Islamist activism threaten the establishment's commitment to Turkey's identity as laicist, Westernizing, ethnically and religiously homogenous nation-state. Furthermore, the Kavakçi affair 48...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9579
Print ISSN
1552-5864
Pages
pp. 46-72
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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