Oray Egin
Turkish millennials have rallied around Safak Pavey, the first disabled woman to become a member of Turkey’s Parliament

This summer, when the tear gas cleared over Gezi Park and the protesters vanished, young secular Turks awoke to find their hopes dashed. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed as entrenched as ever, and continued to meddle in their private lives, criticizing co-ed dorm rooms, among other things. But in recent weeks, secular Turkish millennials appeared to find their voice in an unlikely politician: 37-year-old Safak Pavey.

A member of the country’s main opposition party, she’s the first disabled woman to become a member of Turkey’s parliament. (In 1996, she lost an arm and a leg after she tried to jump onto a moving train). Last March, she was honored by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and received the 2012 Women of Courage Award in Washington, D.C. Yet unlike Clinton, she can’t legally wear a pantsuit in parliament because of dress code restrictions for Turkish lawmakers.

On Oct. 31, Pavey gave a speech decrying this rule, among others. “I’m speaking to you from a room where even a bottle of water is banned,” she said, “a room where I’m not allowed to wear pants.” The speech quickly went viral, gathering more than 500,000 views on YouTube. Now, the anti-pants measure appears set to be repealed—a testament to Pavey’s new found influence. I emailed with Pavey recently and asked about her relationship with Erdoğan and whether or not she’ll become the next mayor of Istanbul.

Lately whenever you speak in the Parliament, your speeches go viral. Do you write them yourself?

Yes. My latest speech was a last minute thing. It came about in two hours, on the night before as I was having dinner with my colleagues. I wasn’t even sure that I’d address parliament until the night before.

Before that you were working for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. What led you into Turkish politics? 

I think the real reason was my personal concern that something wasn’t going right in my home country. Then I suddenly…I received a call from the deputy chairman of People’s Republican Party. He asked if I’d consider and I told him I’d decide in the next few weeks. He demanded an answer in five minutes!

After the Gezi protests your name came up as a mayoral candidate for Istanbul. Do you want to become the city’s next mayor?

I think my name came up during internal surveys, completely without my involvement. And it was leaked to the media. I never considered to run, nor did I want my name to circulate in political circles.

So what does the future hold for you then?

I’m not a career politician. I don’t even think about running for a second term. But I have two more years and my goal is to become the voice of the oppressed in Turkey. I’m not very hopeful, but perhaps I can help pass legislation concerning them.

Your mother is a well-known journalist and an early supporter of Erdoğan. Were you also close to him?

My mother was very close. My only proximity came through her. In 2002, when Erdoğan’s party was elected into office my mother turned down many offers to enter into politics. Things that many people can’t resist… But she told me if she had accepted them it would mean that her support served personal gains, and it wouldn’t be right.

You are now challenging Erdoğan’s government. When were the relations shattered?

The first strike came when his government refused to reform the disabled act. My mother had probably picked a fight with everyone in the government over this. One thing led to another after that. But all ties were cut after the assassination of Hrant Dink [the Turkish-Armenian journalist whose murder still remains a mystery]. But for us, as a family, power was never an attraction. I feel like I’ve always stood by the weak, the unjustly accused.