Just after midday in Fatih, the most Islamic district in Istanbul, on this warm autumn Saturday near the end of Ramazan, not a morsel of food or a drop of water can be seen passing from hand to mouth, but in Butchers’ Lane, queues are buying up a freshly slaughtered goat, lamb or calf for their post-Ramazan bayram, or feast. The boy with the barrow of goats’ heads doesn’t seem to be doing much business, so I buy a bagful to send to friends.
In the central square near the municipal offices I come on a demonstration, apparently organized by young Islamic women on their right to be covered, that is, wear headscarves, where and when they like. They are showing a poster of a policewoman ripping off the headscarf of a young woman. The posters and banners call it a “Disgraceful and Offensive Personal Insult”, and “We’re Sick of the Headscarf Law”. Indeed, the policewomen standing by are the only uncovereds in the square. There are about 200 demonstrators, equally divided between men and women. The women make the speeches and carry the banners. They get vocal support from the men.
Though 95% of the Turkish population is Muslim, Turkey is, like France, a secular state with non-religious institutions: schools have no religious education; universities contain no mosque; no iman can ever be heard praying on television or radio; airports contain no prayer room; and the military is the staunch upholder of the secular state.
Any form of obvious religious manifestation in public institutions is strictly forbidden. Secondary schools wear a British-style school uniform – no headscarves of course. And at universities they are officially prohibited, but, at least at Boğazici, Bosphorous, University, they are allowed, probably not to provoke ire and wrath, indeed, a similar demonstration. On campus maybe some 5-10% of female students wear headscarves, rather, in many cases a 60s style cap or hoodie woolen hat over a close-fitting headpiece that will cover all the hair, for not a strand must be left uncovered. Polo-neck sweaters or blouses, for Islamic modesty forbids showing neck or legs, and frequently a long denim coat over a Mother Hubbard. Tennis shoes are the preferred footwear. Make-up is not forbidden, but few campus covereds use it.
Off-campus Islamic dress varies. Patterned scarves are favoured by older ladies, as by girls at the demonstration. In Fatih many women go around in the full black chador. Many covered women are following family tradition; Istanbul has received many hundreds of thousands of migrants from more traditional areas. But I hear and read that an increasing number of girls from non-Islamic middle-class families, subject to no family or peer pressure, are covering. Why?
A frustration with and aversion to Turkish middle-class values, which have been becoming more and more materialistic. I see them here in the very middle-class area I live, where live revolves around the Shopping Center, Macdonald’s and Starbucks.
The desire to live a more spiritual and less worldly life.
The desire to help and do something for the impoverished classes. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its strong Islamic roots, has picked up the majority of its votes from the poor. As in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, unwieldy, often corrupt, nationalist, secular parties have lost support at grassroots level to Islamic parties. Many covered women are involved in welfare projects to help the poor.
But the day of a covered female PM here in Turkey seems a long way off. The wife of PM Recip Tayyip Erdoğan is covered, but she is hardly a Hillary Clinton, and stays in the background. Jenny B. White writes on women playing a big part in the electoral machine of the Virtue Party, getting the votes out, but they play little part in the upper party echelons*. Still the Islamic ideal of the woman is that of wife and mother. Education, yes, but to become a better wife and mother.
Shenaz tells me of one of her best Interpretation students, a covered girl, who uncovered to work as an interpreter, felt undressed and exposed, covered again but then found the job market much more difficult. Companies were reluctant to employ a covered interpreter. It doesn’t look quite right for the modern, Westernized European Turkey.
* In “The Islamist Paradox”, in Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey, ed. Deniz Kandiyoti and Ayshe Saktanber. Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002.