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Belgium’s first headscarf-wearing MP lands in Erdoğan’s cabinet as the only female minister

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Fatma Zibak

Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş, a dual Turkish-Belgian citizen who in 2009 became the first headscarf-wearing lawmaker in a Belgian parliamentary assembly, was appointed a minister in a new Cabinet announced by the Turkish president over the weekend.

Özdemir is the only female minister in the 17-member cabinet, which also includes the vice president. She will serve as the minister for family and social services, a post generally occupied by women. She took over from her predecessor, Derya Yanık, at a ceremony in Ankara on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who won a runoff election on May 28, securing another five years as president, unveiled his new cabinet at the Çankaya palace in Ankara on Saturday.

The appointment of Özdemir, the daughter of a Turkish immigrant family in Brussels’ Schaerbeek district, as minister came as a surprise to many due to her previous engagement in politics in Belgium as a member of the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH), a Christian democratic and centrist party.

Özdemir’s political career in Belgium was cut short when she was expelled from her party in May 2015 for denying the mass killings of Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire as “genocide.” She continued as an independent for some time and did not seek re-election in 2019, turning her focus to Turkish politics and courting Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Her stance on the mass killings of Armenians was in line with the official discourse of Turkey since it vehemently denies the genocide claims.

She said she was exercising her freedom of speech and that there was no court decision proving the Armenian allegations of a genocide.

At the time Özdemir described her expulsion as a black stain on the CDH and Belgian democracy, saying it shamed their claims about freedom of speech.

She immediately received support from the AKP office in Brussels, with a pro-AKP organization staging a demonstration in support of her.

Özdemir married Rahmi Göktaş, who was serving as an assistant to then-AKP lawmaker Edibe Sözen, at a ceremony in İstanbul in 2010, which was attended by then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and many AKP politicians, following which she became more visible at AKP events and publicly supported the party’s policies.

Her husband is currently serving as chairman of the pro-AKP Yunus Emre Institute, a worldwide non-profit organization established by the AKP government in 2007, in Brussels.

Özdemir, who studied political science at the Free University of Brussels but never had a career in diplomacy or worked at the Turkish foreign ministry, became the first woman ambassador appointed to a North African country when she was named by Erdoğan as Turkey’s ambassador to Algeria in September 2019. She served in this capacity until her appointment as a minister on Saturday.

Özdemir’s appointment has received extensive coverage in the Belgian media, with many interpreting the development as the failure of Belgian integration policies, while right-wing parties said the appointment of Özdemir as a minister was a sign how much influence Erdoğan wields over Turks abroad.

Erdoğan received overwhelming support from Turkish voters overseas in last month’s presidential election, garnering 57 percent support on May 14 and more than 59 percent in a runoff election held on May 28.

One of the harshest criticisms of Özdemir came from Assita Kanko, a Belgian politician from the New Flemish Alliance and a member of the European Parliament.

She said there was only one woman in Erdoğan’s cabinet and that she was Belgian. She called the situation a subjugation of women based on Islamic values.

Kanko said Özdemir became the first headscarf-wearing woman in Brussels thanks to the Christian democrats and that she did nothing other than promote the headscarf and deny the Armenian genocide in the 10 years she was in the Brussels parliament.

“Now she can further promote her misogynistic ideas, but in Erdogan’s Turkey. I think she’s at least consistent,” she tweeted.

It remains to be seen how Özdemir will tackle the domestic violence problem in Turkey, where women are often subjected to violence and murdered at the hands of men. Her AKP is also accused of promoting violence against women with its sexist and discriminatory discourse.

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