Recommended Blogs

The bikini: a feminist issue

Turkey's ban on posters showing women in two-pieces will not stop its emancipated women dressing however they please.

A brief history of the Turkish bikini: nice respectable teenage girls were wearing them in the resorts around Istanbul and Izmir as far back as the 1960s. On "unspoiled" beaches it was not uncommon to attract a mob of staring men in those days, but as more resorts opened up, the bikini followed. By the 1980s, attitudes had relaxed all along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. This was partly because so many millions of Turks had spent time as guest workers in Germany, and partly because many more millions now had television, and their favourite programme was the bikini-studded Dallas.

In the 1990s, when mass tourism went massive, it was not uncommon to see a Turkish village woman bathing fully covered, while on a skimpy towel only metres away a foreign tourist sunbathed topless. You can think of that as a contradiction, or you can think of it as inevitable when some sectors of a rapidly changing society modernise faster than others. By the middle of that decade, though, the bikini was facing a serious challenge. The Islamist Refah party (soon to be banned and replaced by the Fazilet party, also later banned, eventually paving the way for the latest ruling) was by then taking a serious interest in women's modesty. It was at about that time that you began to hear about beach clubs that offered separate facilities for men and women and required Islamist dress. There was also the sad tale of the group of Islamist girls who were drowning but not rescued for fear of offending their modesty.

This caused great consternation in secular circles, where women's clothing is also politically symbolic. So it has been since the founding of the Republic in 1923. Ataturk did not actually ban the veil, but he did instigate what the Turks call a dress revolution; his adopted daughters were amongst the first to model western clothing and it soon became a mark of modernity - and patriotism - to follow suit. Turkish women got the vote before French women did. Because westernised families also took female education seriously, women established themselves in the professions far sooner than in many parts of Europe (including the UK). The percentage of tenured women professors was already higher in Turkey than anywhere else in the world in the mid-1990s, when the then dominant Islamist party came up with the brilliant idea of sending covered women into the universities that were commonly acknowledge as secularism's most sacred space.

Many of their secularist classmates were so upset by the very sight of them that they'd spit in their faces. This is not hearsay, as I saw it with my own eyes. But the divide was not as clear cut as that might suggest. There were many women academics who understood the political gamesmanship involved, but who thought that covered students had the right to an education just as they had the right to decide on what they wore and that, armed with an education, they would, with time, effect change from within. Of course, this presupposes a family that allows girls to make their own decisions (which is definitely not always the case) and even more important, a state that upholds those girls' right to do so.

There is a very real and understandable fear that an Islamist-dominated state would turn the country into "another Iran". But the Turkish state has since its inception been dominated by secularists - secularists who are inclined to believe that Turkey is not really mature enough to enjoy the human rights that those of us living in European democracies take for granted. So the Turkish state decided that it should be the one to decide what women did or did not wear on their heads. It banned the headscarf in universities and all state buildings.

The debate about the rights and wrongs of this measure still rages on. Some ask why it is Islamist women who have to bear the full brunt of this state-imposed sanction, and not Islamist men. Isn't that sexism in a pernicious new form? When one Islamist leader decided more or less overnight that the headscarf game had played itself out in terms of political advantage, he commended his female followers to abandon them. Some did; others took the rather feminist position that they should be the ones to decide when to take their headscarves off. A handful of disgruntled activists started a human rights organisation for covered women. Others took to conserving their modesty by wearing wigs.

In the mid-90s, the approved uniform for Islamist women was not something anyone could have enjoyed wearing in the heat of summer. There was not just the Islamist headscarf (tightly tied under the chin, to distinguish it from the common-or-garden peasant headscarf) but the heavy, badly cut ankle-length trench coat. That there has been continuous negotiation "from within" is evident from the annual revisions to that outfit. Trench coats eventually gave way to waistcoats. Scarves became ever silkier and colourful, and this year skirts worn by girls from good Islamist families have gone right up to the knee. It is commonplace to think of Islamist parties as representing the marginalised, the hopeless, and the dispossessed, but the mainstay of today's ruling Islamist party is the emerging Anatolian bourgeoisie. They have money and (like the westernised urban bourgeoisie) they like to express their rising status with expensive clothes.

Expensive or no, their clothing remains politically symbolic. But what does it signify? Some (and I would include myself in this group) believe that Turkey is now confident enough after 84 years of secularism to allow for muted religious expression in the private sphere and that a democracy can and should support the right to such expression without blurring the line between Islam and the state. But (partly because Turkey is indeed so very secular in spirit) there are many who fear the AKP's ulterior motives. These include not just the westernised bourgeoisie but the Alevis.

The Alevis are a substantial minority (between 10% and 40%) who were persecuted by the Sunni Ottomans, and also by the Republic after Ataturk turned all Sunni clerics into civil servants but chose not to recognise the Alevis or even to count them. The Alevis believe in the equality of the sexes. Alevi women in particular fear what might happen to them should the Sunni AKP gain too much power. The hundreds of thousands of secularists who have been marching in recent weeks to protest encroaching Islamism are predominantly women and most of these women come from secular middle-class families or Alevi families or both.

What has fanned their fears? The media. In particular, those sectors of the print media that are closely allied to the party that stands to gain most by fanning that fear. This is the CHP, the Republican People's Party, founded by Ataturk, and traditionally the home of westernising, Europe-facing secularism. But ever since the Islamist AKP decided to embrace the European project, it has turned virulently nationalist, even ultranationalist. By which I mean not just anti-Europe, but pro-army, perhaps even pro-military coup. Freedom of expression is not high on this party's list. Neither is democracy. I don't want him to sue me, so I won't tell you everything I know about Baykal, the CHP's leader, though I would urge you not to buy a car from this man.

The sad fact - and it is a fact much discussed in the electronic network of Turkish feminist activists - is that neither the AKP nor the CHP have much to offer Turkey's emancipated women. But there are millions of them, and they have minds of their own. They even have an Emily's List. So we shall see.

Popular Posts

Past Posts