Turkish Armenian Parliamentarian Selina Dogan Fights for Human Rights

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Garo Paylan may be a familiar name to the Armenian diaspora, but there are currently two other ethnic Armenians serving in the Turkish Parliament.

Selina Özuzun Dogan, 39, is a lawyer who was elected to the parliament from the second district of Istanbul in June 2015 on the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party, or RPP) list. She, Paylan and Markar Esayan, that year became the first Armenians to serve in the Turkish parliament since 1964; she is only the second Turkish-Armenian female parliamentarian ever.

Dogan was a keynote speaker at the Armenian International Women’s Association 25th anniversary conference in Cambridge in October, when she gave an interview about developments in Turkish society and her role in politics.

Dogan was initially chosen by RPP president Kemal Kiliçdaroglu in a surprise move as part of the 15 percent quota in the party’s primary election that he can personally appoint. According to an article in Cumhuriyet, a newspaper affiliated with the RRP, the religious (and ethnic) minority foundations had asked to have a representative in the Turkish parliament, and proposed her name. She was then placed at the top of the party list for her electoral district in April 2015. According to the same Cumhuriyet article, the support for Dogan was an attempt to prove that the RPP, which used to be the ruling party of a one-party state during much of the life of the Republic of Turkey, but now has been forced to become an opposition party, has changed. Dogan said that without this special support, it would have been hard for her in the full election, without the necessary money and political recognition, to have succeeded.

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This turn of events was a welcome change for Dogan. After obtaining a law degree from Galatasaray University and a master’s degree in human rights law from Bilgi University in Istanbul, she had been working as a lawyer, but after having a child, she stayed home. She felt constrained and envied her husband, Erdal Dogan, who was traveling for panels and had a social life. He was engaged in human rights activism. An Alevi, Erdal Dogan’s grandmother was Armenian, and he was part of the original team of lawyers for the Hrant Dink assassination case.

At that point in her personal life, Selina Dogan said, “I was not happy. After I had my baby, I was saying, ‘I speak French, I speak English, but I cannot use my skills. I studied human rights law but I cannot use my knowledge. I cannot meet new people.’ I told my husband I want to do something else.”

Dogan being chosen by the RPP was not completely out of the blue. She said, “I grew up with the RPP culture because of my father. He served the party for more than 30 years. He was the vice mayor in the most recent period in the Bakirköy district. … I knew many people from the party, at least in Bakirköy.”

Her father, Yervant Özuzun, was involved in the Democratic Left Party from 1980, and then after 1993 in the RPP, and therefore is an experienced politician. Selina explained that though her father was first considered for parliament, the RPP president insisted on her, because he was also pushing for more women to be involved in the party. Her work as a lawyer on behalf of various minority foundations in Turkey made her even more appropriate for the nomination.

In the Turkish Grand National Assembly, or parliament, she serves on various committees, including the Turkey-European Union (EU) Joint Parliamentary Committee and the Committee on EU Harmonization. She said that it was not important for her whether Turkey was part of the EU. Instead, she said, “If I can have these standards without entering the EU, it is fine too. The important thing is that every Turkish citizen, and not only Armenians, enjoys basic fundamental rights, and can be equal before the law, with freedom of press, and freedom of expression. We are also a member of the Council of Europe and depend on the human rights agreement. This is why in our commission we are trying to elaborate laws in accordance with European Union regulations.”

However, she pointed out that the current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, was moving away from these standards, and the coup attempt of the summer was a good excuse to avoid fulfilling some criteria. Her party, the RPP, supported the EU process since the beginning, she said, since it defended secularism and a state of law, and it is trying to become a true social democratic party through its electoral program and discourse.

In addition to the direct work of parliament concerning laws, Dogan has other contacts with European legislators. She said, “Sometimes EU parliamentarians visit our country, and they want to see me or my colleagues. Lately, they participated in the gay parade in Istanbul and were arrested. I tried to help them.”

She is active on all sorts of discrimination issues. She said, “First of all, I do not only bring up issues about the Armenian community. There are also Greek, Jewish, Turkish Orthodox and Assyrian communities in Turkey. They have many problems. We have sometimes common problems; sometimes they have their own problems.”

She is playing a novel role in attempting to change the image of the RPP with respect to these groups. She said, “I am trying to somehow bring together the RPP and these entities. There was somehow a distance because of some historical reasons and I am trying to close this distance. I occupy a place in this party now. Within the party, there were some people who never met an Armenian before in their life, and they had prejudices, but after they knew me, this changed. Therefore I think it is very important to occupy this place.”

She declared, “When I will leave the parliament one day, and when they say Armenian, I know that they will remember me. It places on my shoulders a very big mission, a great responsibility.”

She has already raised questions in parliament about issues such as the codes being used secretly to categorize Armenians, Greeks, Jews and others.

At the end of December 2015, together with officials from the Armenian Patriarchate and a reporter from Agos newspaper, she visited Armenian from Iraq fleeing ISIS who ended up in Yozgat, and collected information for a RPP committee dealing with the plight of refugees in Turkey.

On December 12, Dogan in parliament criticized the use of the word “gavur,” meaning infidel or unbeliever, to describe the religious minorities in Turkey. She said that they do not wish to continually be considered as suspect elements in this country. She has made similar criticisms of insulting language directed at minorities in the past.

On a related issue, she states that the government Diyanet Isleri Bakanligi, or Religious Affairs Directorate, “should be abolished. This is an institution that serves only one sect in Islam. They don’t serve the Alevis. They don’t even recognize their place of prayer legally. It is an institution which discriminates in society, and it has a huge budget. It is completely against secularism.”

Dogan is also active on gender discrimination and LGBTI issues in Turkey. She said, “It is a question of life and death in Turkey because they are murdered. Unfortunately, there are a very limited number of parliamentarians who deal with this issue. This is also because of the current situation in Turkey, but this is something that cannot wait, because they are dying — it is not like fashion, or a trend.”

Of the 550 members of parliament, only 87 are women. There is a commission on gender equality in it, but the ruling Justice and Development Party, Dogan said, works “to make women stuck at home with kids, and if possible, to stay there forever, so this is an endless fight.” She added, “It is not that much different in the Armenian community. We maybe do not have this violence provoked by religious motives, but we have the same obstacles as other women. We have to raise our child, the family. It is more important for us to take care of grandma and grandma.”

More generally, due to the state of emergency imposed in Turkey, fundamental rights are being violated. She said that thousands have their passports cancelled so they cannot travel. Dogan related that “the contacts between those arrested and lawyers are not respected. Lawyers cannot even bring in money with them because they could take notes [on the money]. Can you imagine? They are recording with cameras the contacts with clients. So we are trying to keep these things alive so that public opinion can remain aware of them.”

A big problem in this situation, she said, is that “all media is controlled by the ruling party. We don’t have any media. That is why I think it is very important to be in the field in contract with NGOs, with people on the street. We have our social media accounts. Physically we visit with them.”

Dogan said that she had good relations with the other two Armenian deputies in the Turkish National Assembly. About Garo Paylan of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), she exclaimed, “He is my friend. Even before we were candidates he was my friend.” On Markar Esayan of the Justice and Development Party, she said, “Markar is in my district. He is also a friend of mine. I ask his collaboration for some things.”

When asked about the differences between her political party and that of Paylan, she said, “We defend that anybody is equal before the law. Our discourse is not based on any ethnic identity. Their discourse is based mainly on Kurdish identity. And we are always trying to raise the issue of the economy. We want to share the wealth. They do not have such discourses that target everybody, other than peace.” She summarized her approach as follows: “We believe that as long Turkey becomes more democratic and we make the local administrations stronger, as long as we discuss everything in the parliament in a healthy way, it is going to be helpful for any ethnic identity, and we hope that one day we will stop talking about ethnic identity.”

Dogan said that she has homes in Istanbul and Ankara. Her father’s side is from Marzovan or Merzifon in Amasya Province. She had just visited Amasya around a month before her trip to the US, and was able to find the house of her father’s grandmother, Arshaloys. While fleeing from the attacks of Topal Osman in 1921, Arshaloys gave birth to her daughter Berjuhi at Anatolia College run by American missionaries in Merzifon. Dogan’s mother was born in Istanbul but her maternal grandfather was from Kastamonu and her grandmother from Sinop.

When asked what can Armenians in the diaspora do to help the situation in Turkey, she replied, “I realized here that among the participants [in the AIWA conference] there were many people who did not even know what the RPP is. So the first thing is that they should follow what is going on in Turkey. This will let them discover how they can contribute.”

She concluded that there were many ways to promote cultural exchange to build a new bridge, since, she said, “Unfortunately the diaspora has a very pejorative meaning in Turkey. The very first day I went to parliament for registration they asked me things about genocide. I said, please we need to rescue the diaspora from this pejorative meaning. What we are calling diaspora is from Anatolia. Their ancestors are from Anatolia. We have to find a way to speak the same language.”