Over the past weekend, the CHP held its 37th Congress, during which it elected new leadership. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was the only candidate running for the chairperson position and he secured another mandate to lead the party. A series of important local elections victories last year have given Kılıçdaroğlu the political boost he needed.

The elections for the party assembly, on the other hand, had their surprises. The list of the favored candidates for the assembly was presented by the Assembly Chairman Kılıçdaroğlu. The party delegates voted on each of the names, but also had the opportunity to choose candidates outside of the list. In a series of little surprises, some names from the list remained unelected, while some unlisted outsiders made it into the assembly. Once again, it was obvious that the CHP is a complex mechanism and has internal power groups that are not always easy to figure out.

The CHP has also been adopting the practice of quotas for women and youth for intra-party elections. A young woman named Sevgi Kılıç made it into the party assembly thanks to the youth quota. What makes her unique for the CHP is the fact that she is a young woman who wears a headscarf. This is quite a novelty for a party that had a tough stance against headscarves in the public sphere during the ‘90s and the first decade of the 2000s.

In 2007, the AKP declared Abdullah Gül as their candidate for the presidency. Back then, Turkey’s presidential election system was still indirect, and the president was elected by the parliament. The CHP harshly opposed Gül’s presidency, and it did not hide that this was because Gül’s wife wore a headscarf.

A lot has changed both in Turkey and in the CHP in the last decade. 

I interviewed the 27-year-old lawyer Sevgi Kılıç following her intra-party election, and asked about her interests in the CHP and what she is trying to achieve.

She told me she is from Beykoz Çavuşbaşı, an interesting neighborhood, where the fundamentalist İsmailağa sect is very active. Sevgi Kılıç comes from a family without a strong tradition of sending female members to schools. Her older sister did not go to a university for example, and instead was married off. Sevgi Kılıç, however, is one of the unique fighters. 

She told me she decided to become a lawyer after reading the story about the first Turkish woman lawyer, Süreyya Ağaoğlu, and her correspondence with Atatürk. 

Kılıç also told me she was for laicism and a supporter of the CHP’s stance on laicism. I asked her about the former harsher policies of her party towards the religious segments of society. In a sort of a surprising answer, she said she believed that in the late ‘90s, Islamist groups were exploiting the system and pushing for an Islamic jurisdiction. Therefore, she found justification in this for the CHP’s harsher stance at that time.

Sevgi’s message about her lifestyle is actually a very simple one: people should wear whatever they like, and this should not be an issue debated or regulated by politicians. She says as a politician she concentrates on finding solutions to Turkey’s more crucial problems, like the economic downturn.

Sevgi Kılıç represents the new generation of women who come from religious backgrounds. As a generation, they tend to seek more freedom and civil rights. Although the AKP claims to be the sole defender of the interests of religious women, this does not say much to Sevgi Kılıç. The freedom to be able to exist in society with her headscarf is important, but it is not the only factor for her and women like her to feel free and fulfilled. Because of this, she can find more in common with the new generation of CHP politicians. 

Politics has become more and more about symbols, images and subtle messages than anything else. With Sevgi’s intra-party electoral success, it seems that the CHP is sending a message to the new generation of women from conservative backgrounds. It is as if the party has finally acknowledged that ostracizing this part of the society for decades has unnecessarily limited the abilities and potential of Turkey’s center-left; winning the hearts and the minds of young women with conservative upbringings but with a desire for freedom and civilizational progress, on the other hand, will also be an important step in overcoming the serious obstacles of deeply-rooted polarization in Turkish society.