III) Beneath and beyond the headscarf: democratisation and women's rights
2007-: The Gul presidency and the civilian constitution
If the state elite seems to have managed to create a strong activist court, the presidential election year 2007 can nonetheless prove instructive for the country's future. In 2007, the AKP, through the Prime Minister Erdogan, endorsed the candidacy of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul. This decision sparked a major political and constitutional crisis in the country – not over Gul's track record in the executive, but over his wife's veiled head and neck. The military immediately threatened to take action against the government should his candidacy be maintained; a move supported by the main opposition party, the Kemalist CHP, and the judiciary (Grigoriadis, 2009:1205). Ensued a debate over the self-representation of Turkey and Turkish society (in other words, over Turkish identity) and its portrayal abroad, should the President's wife be covered. Society was sharply divided over the issue and the media proved instrumental in depicting the headscarf as backward and oppressive to women (Elver, 2012:24).
What matters here is, however, how the issue was handled and eventually resolved: the AKP called anticipated legislative elections that the ruling party turned into a confidence vote in its policies and in the Gul's candidacy. With the comfortable re-election of the AKP, the crisis was peacefully and democratically resolved. Through their ballot, the people sent two important messages to the Kemalist elite: first, that it rejected its interference in political affairs and that it did not recognise its self-appointed role of custodian of the principle of secularism; second, that ideology might not be as important as delivering on electoral promises and implementing reforms. The AKP's economic record surely played a crucial role in the election (Ghanim, 2009).
After its re-election and with Gul becoming President, the AKP started working the long-promised civilian constitution that would replace the one drafted by the military in 1982 (Elver, 2012:25).1 However, in 2008, a draft bill relative to the principle of equality and the universal right to an education (limited by the current ban) put a halt to the entire project. This meant other important issues like rights to ethnic and religious minorities were sidelined and became invisible (ibid:26). The draft, which did not mention lifting the headscarf ban, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, which also examined a complaint against the ruling party, asking for its closure and a ban from politics for its leaders on the ground of their “anti-secular activities”. The very fact that the Court accepted to hear the case was condemned by some as a “judicial coup” (ibid:28) by the “civilian doppelganger” of the staunchly Kemalist but now weakened military (Paton, 2007 quoted in Shambayati and Kirdis, 2009:775). In the end, the party only...