[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
“Injustice anywhere,” said Martin Luther King, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” Therefore the world should learn and care about the story of Tevhide Kütük, the 17-year-old Turkish schoolgirl who just became the latest victim of Turkey’s self-styled apartheid.
It all started several months ago in Kozan, a municipality in the southern city of Adana. The young and bright Tevhide, a student of the state-sponsored quasi-religious “Imam-Hatip” schools, heard about the essay contest that the Education Ministry launched to celebrate the annual Teacher’s Day. She wrote a fine piece on the virtues of teaching, and submitted it to the organizing committee. Soon the jury decided that she was the best writer among all the other students in her hometown, and thus she deserved to win the award, which was a very modest present by all standards, but a very inspiring reward for a modest teenager.
On Nov. 28, Teacher’s day, Tehvide, along with other winners in poetry and painting, was invited to a ceremony at the town hall. She, of course, accepted the invitation and showed up on that day with all her enthusiasm. After some boring speeches by the usual dignitaries, the winners of the contests were called to the stage. With joyful music playing in the background, Tevhide cheerfully climbed the steps and exuberantly lined up with other kids in order to be congratulated and applauded.
Yet things were not destined to go right. In the VIP seats, there were a bunch of sinister men whose loyalty to tyrannical state principles exceeded their respect and care for human beings. The moment they saw Tevhide, they were shocked and abhorred. Because the little girl was wearing the Islamic headscarf! In official Turkey, that symbol only belongs to the untouchables, those who pollute the sacred soil of the secular republic with their offensive religious presence. Especially army commander, Major Hüseyin Çopur, and local governor, Aydın Tetikoğlu, were deeply affronted by this little girl who dared to break the rules of the caste system. The outlaw had to be punished, and law and order had to be restored.
So, after less than a minute that little Tevhide took stage, these two men – one in uniform, the other in unimind – took a quick measure to save the secular republic from her. “Take her down,” they told their aides. And a man in a black suit approached Tevhide to whisper into her ear that she had to leave the stage immediately. She was shocked for a few seconds, and then rapidly moved away while bursting into tears.
Local TV cameras were shooting the whole event. Somewhere at the back, Tevhide cried for minutes and minutes, while her parents and friends tried to calm her down. But she neither calmed down nor decided to give up. She walked again toward the front seats, in order to speak to the VIP men. She stood right in front of the national education director. “Why don’t you give me my award, my teacher,” she asked. “This is a great injustice.”
The “teacher” – a man with a thick mustache and apparently a thin conscience – just looked at her with a humiliating face. “No,” he ordered, “just get back to your seat!” There was nothing he could do, actually. As a loyal apparatchik, he was only following orders.
Tevhide, who was still crying, left the hall along with her family and many other people who reacted against this official injustice. Days have passed since that episode and the family says that the young girl is still very sad and they fear that she might get into depression. Even if she doesn’t, she will probably remember this trauma for the rest of her life. And not just her, but millions of others in this country who cover their heads because their beliefs will continue to feel insulted and humiliated.
Shame, not happiness
The weekly humor magazine “Leman” has a great cover this week, with the title “The tears of a young girl” and a cartoon that shows the poor Tevhide being kicked by a huge army boot. (Leman is a secular magazine, by the way. It is just non-fascist.) I think this caricature is a very accurate depiction of not just Tevhide’s drama, but also the whole apartheid regime in this country, which is, despite all our democratic achievements, still intact.
This has to end. Now is the time for freedom for all Turkish citizens, whatever their creed, langue and way of life may be. The unelected and self-appointed VIP’s of Turkey have to accept a “freedom chart” similar to the one that their ilk in South Africa had to concede in the ‘90s. Enough is enough.
If they insist on preserving this system of organized injustice, then they will be undermining the very foundation of this country: The consent of the citizens. I have to admit that I am already shaky in that regard. I love Turkey with all its history, people, and culture, but I can’t find a way to sympathize with its authoritarian state. It really doesn’t help much to reiterate Atatürk’s motto, “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” I do say that I am a Turk, but that hardly gives me happiness. In fact, when I see all the cruelties done in this country to its people by its sovereigns, it even gives me shame.