A Demonstration in Fatih


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.


8 Responses to “A Demonstration in Fatih”

  1. John Says:

    Having been born and raised in western countries, I find it ridiculous that non-muslims are obliged to wear the veil in Muslim countries. I have lived in a couple of, sensible, Muslim countries and never saw a problem, however, some of these backward countries demand it.
    So….if they come to civilisation, ask for asylum, get our money then…..live by our standards!
    We are in the 21st century and not in the 15th!!!
    If Allah really protects them, then what are they doing in our countries?!!!

  2. Leda Motta Says:

    Continuo lendo você com o maior interesse. Abraço da Leda Motta.

  3. Paulo Cesar Says:

    Caro John:

    Fiquei bastante preocupado com esse seu post. Se você, que é um representante da “intelligentsia”, ainda repete esse discurso, fico imaginando qual deve estar sendo o conteúdo dos relatórios dos serviços de análise da informação e montagem de cenários. É desesperador!

    Vou dar uma dica para a comunidade: por favor, leia o livro “The Domestic World” by Time-Life Books, traduzido e publicado no Brasil pela Editora Abril. A leitura é muito instrutiva e logo a gente percebe que a situação de crise se assemelha bastante com o que aconteceu no final do século XIX nos países centrais e que proporcionou o avanço das seitas cristãs fundamentalistas. Será que aquele processo histórico foi ruim? O livro ensaia uma resposta convincente.

    Com essa leitura básica é possível entender a extensão do que escreve o Luis Nassif na coluna econômica de hoje (23/10/2006), “A volta do pêndulo” – http://z001.ig.com.br/ig/04/39/946471/blig/luisnassif_economia/2006_10.html#post_18668544

    Não é à toa que o jornalista é membro do Conselho do Instituto de Estudos Avançados da USP e do Conselho de Economia da FIESP.

  4. José Carlos G. Ribeiro Says:

    Thanks for sending us your notes. So many experiences I have never had …

    I do have thoughts, though, on some of the issues you write about.
    The Islamic veil and women’s preference to cover themselves is one of them.
    I believe people do not function barely in the realm of reason. So many other forces interact inside (and outside) a person to make him(her) think, feel and do as he(she) does.
    OK. No more “politically correct” treament. It’s she/her from now on, mainly because the triggering effect was your blog about Muslim women, but there is no gender involved. This applies to both “halfs” of humankind (or mankind!).
    The basic craving of humans is happiness. This may mean a plethora of things, from enough money to buy a whole Mall to being accepted by a superior being, ruler and judge of people’s actions, or beeing accepted and recognized in a social environment.
    I do not know what was the original reason behind the adoption of the Muslim veil for women, but it certainly was not a “God’s Commandment”. Someone started that for reasons unknown to me, but which I dare to guess.
    In a culture where harems and eunuchs were socially accepted, the veil most probably was a way to prevent attacks on a male’s “property”. In the animal world we can see that in the territorial instinct so evident in some species, with males defending their “conquered” harem from other males. That’s the way the DNA gets passed on and, hopefully, perpetuated.
    From such a lowly (?) origin, the veil has evolved to become a religious requirement and a “protection” armour for women in Muslim culture.
    I see basically two sides for this issue when applied to social environments.
    On one side, there is the right of any woman to do as she prefers, to use the veil or to show the world her face.
    On the other I perceive modern society’s need for “control” and the aversion to having anyone hiding their identity behind any tipe of masking, either a Zorro mask or a burka.
    Opinions and unyielding positions will always result in difficult to resolve conflicts.
    Religion and a group’s safeguards are two very unyielding areas.

  5. John Says:

    Caro Paulo Cesar,
    Obrigado pela preocupacao e entendo a sua opiniao porem, tendo vivido 4 anos em paises Muculmanos, tive a oportunidada de ver de perto o preconceito que existe contra mulheres e pessoas de outras religioes.
    Portanto, “o conteudo de relatorios” etc, vem da carne e nao de um livro!

  6. Paulo Cesar Says:

    Caro John:

    Faz tempo que não o vejo, espero que esteja tudo bem com você!

    O que eu reclamo no conteúdo dos relatórios é que eles mencionam os sintomas e deixam de lado as causas. Também é fácil identificar uma “crente” aqui no Brasil pelo aspecto e pelas roupas que usa. Difícil é ver anotado que esse comportamento dito “exótico” é mais freqüente nas regiões menos favorecidas.

    Não vou entrar na armadilha de fazer juízo de valor sobre a intensidade das repressões ao comportamento das pessoas, mas digo que isso são fases que serão tão longas e tão fortes quanto as pressões externas aos sistemas em que vivem.

    Volto a recomendar o livro da Time-Life. A leitura sobre experiências passadas ajuda um bocado a entender o que está acontecendo no presente. Ao contrário do que a mídia quer nos fazer acreditar, o mundo é um pouquinho menos diferente do que parece.

  7. John Says:

    Caro Paulo Cesar,
    Opa! será que está falando com o mesmo John?
    Nao sou o John Milton, sou outro John que conhece ele da minha epoca em Sao Paulo.
    Mas, valeu, e concordo plenamente com seu comentario ” mencionar os sintomas e nao as causas”.
    Penso que, com um pouco de “understanding” dos outros (de todas as partes) o mundo seria muito melhor – sem gastar dinheiro em armas todos seriam beneficiarios.
    Procurarei o livre recomendado aqui em Brasilia – quem sabe mandarei uma copia ao Lula – mas nao quero entrar em outra polemica!!!!

  8. Nil Says:

    I feel the need to correct some points in your entry. I actually felt this need as I read along all your entries, but here is the first: schools do have religious education in Turkey. We have the compulsory religion course starting from the 4th or 5th grade up until the 12th. Even at an American Highschool to which I have attended, we had to memorize arabic prayers without understanding a single word of them. Many imams can be heard or seen praying on the TV on days of religious significance, i.e. kandils or bayrams. They appear on the screen and pray in Arabic for hours for at least 27 years.

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