One woman in a white blazer walks up to the stand of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. She has only five minutes, and a gentle smile on her face that she knows will comfort the men in the room, and delay the obnoxious heckles that we all have come to expect from a normal day at the Turkish parliament.
By Zeynep Aksoy & Su Özer
The first words that come out of her mouth contradicts her smile,
“I have so many doubts about Turkey’s direction.”
“My fear derives from the mentality that puts law against religion, secularity against immorality, and lipstick against a hijab; a mentality that essentially puts a human being against another.
Recently the story of the female police officer with a hijab received a huge backlash in the media with the belief that a police officer should not be wearing a religious symbol on duty. This, to me, is not secularism. It is sexism. This female police officer got torn apart by the media while her colleagues of the same values, but of the opposite gender, faced no scrutiny whatsoever.
“Banning women with hijabs from the police forces is not magically going to make the Turkish police trusted by the public again.”
“Young people’s distrust and fear towards the Turkish police does not come from a religious symbol like hijab. It comes from the premise of violence that has proved time and time again to be fatal and inhumane.
This very parliament also asked for a fatwa from The Presidency of Religious Affairs to open up Cem Houses. We all sat here and watched when Alevis’ rights to practice their religion was decided upon by Sunnis.”
Her smile fails to mitigate the rising tempers in the room. As a group of angry parliament members constantly shout, she finishes her five minutes with these words:
“I am addressing the party in power directly.
You have to realize the difference between true justice and revenge before this country is irreversibly polarized.
Believe me when I say that we are not picking fights or trying to engage in a skirmish with you. We are only trying to survive this radical monster that you’ve created without losing our identity on the way. This is an issue of freedom and acceptance. You have to accept all lifestyles and respect what people choose to do with their lives. You have to stop using people who are different than you as a political device to advance your own agenda.”
Şafak Pavey was born in 1976 in Ankara. She moved to Zurich when she was eighteen to study art and film. She was fascinated with the European notion of arts and education, very much like a lot of her peers in Turkey also were at the time. During the eighties and nineties young, middle-class Turkish people had started going abroad for university. Many of them wouldn’t return, and would eventually settle down outside of Turkey. Pavey’s future plans were not so different, until 24 May 1996.
On a Friday in Zurich, an eighteen-year-old Şafak Pavey takes Miroslav Hess, a friend who had physical limitations due to his brain tumor, to the train station. Şafak helps him get on the train, and sits him down before going to the booth to buy his ticket. She walks back to the platform and spots her friend sticking his hand out of the train window to get it. She starts running towards the window as the train starts leaving. Just as she is about to hand him the ticket, the train picks up speed and her foot slips into the gap between the train and the platform. The next thirty seconds are all a blur. She feels extreme amount of pain, and notices a lot of people running towards her. Someone shouts, “I am a doctor. Get out of the way please!” Before losing consciousness, she sees a lot of blood and flesh on the tracks. Two days after she wakes up in a hospital to see her left arm and leg amputated.
Her days in intensive care mark the beginning of a yearlong struggle of adjusting to her new body. With this accident, Şafak’s plans change. She is suddenly on the tabloids of both Turkish and Swiss newspapers as “the young woman who lost her arm and leg helping a friend in the train station.” However, the biggest change was within her. The first three months of her recovery were tough. She battled with psychological repercussions of extreme physical trauma. Later on, in one of the interviews she gave, she talked about the year after the accident as “a year of contemplating on life, and coming to terms with what happened.”
The recurring question in her head was “Was it worth it?” to which her answer was always “Yes.”
After a year of rigorous physical treatment she dropped-out of university in Zurich and went to London to study international relations at the University of Westminster and completed her postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics.
Pavey served in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, providing humanitarian aid to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. She was a columnist for the Istanbul based Armenian-Turkish bilingual weekly Agos, and has authored three books. The book “Platform Number 13” narrating the train accident experience became a bestseller in Turkey.
After fifteen years living abroad, Pavey returned to Turkey in 2011 and ran for a parliament seat.
She left her position at the United Nations in 2012 and was elected Deputy of Istanbul Province for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), becoming the first disabled female member of the Turkish Parliament. After living abroad for 15 years, Pavey accepted an offer to stand in the 2011 elections because she was concerned about the direction her country was taking.
Freedom of expression, women’s rights and minority rights were all in decline.
According to official statistics, reported violence against women had greatly risen since 2002, before the current government won the general elections.
Turkey had recently been shaken by a massive corruption scandal that involved high government officials, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously said that he did not think that men and women were equal.
Pavey believes the country should be less obsessed by any topic concerning sexuality and focus on the real issues: freedom of expression, government accountability and separation of powers.
Pavey says she wants to keep fighting for what she thinks is crucial. “Many female politicians get intimidated by the aggressive behavior of men. I don’t. Not because I am a courageous person or anything, but because I see international standards and I see that they are worth fighting for.”
On 31 October 2013, as she took the stand, dressed in white, her speech was, as always, controversial and refreshing. After she voiced her concerns on the social and political polarization of the country, her last sentences were, “Please remember, fellow members of Parliament! The people are not here for you. You are here for the people.”