Titillating Islamic Fashions

By Heather Abraham

Since my first holiday to Turkey in 1996, and subsequent visits, I have  noticed a continuous and substantial increase in the wearing of conservative Islamic attire (hijab).  With the advent of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has struggled to discourage public displays of this culturally influenced religious mode of expression; even going so far as to institute laws prohibiting the wearing of religious dress in government buildings.  Today, the public wearing of religious garb has become a contentious issue on the Turkish political battlefield and has resulted in a significant cultural divide.

During my stay in Turkey last month, I observed some radical changes in Islamic fashions—surprising changes that may signal a rebellion simmering against the conservative push toward a culturally constructed Islamic “modesty.”  Turkey, which has long boasted of producing some of the finest textiles in the world, is now taking the Islamic fashion world by storm, producing cutting-edge Islamic styles.  The fusion of conservative religious sensibilities and a fashion hungry society has resulted in some curious and titillating trends.

The traditional formless outerwear (hijab), in various shades of drab, has been infused with color, snipped, and tucked to reveal the female body in all its glory.  No longer are hijab wearing women relegated to the anonymity of a black, grey, or brown sack.  Reds, greens, purples, pinks, and blues mingle with gossamer fabrics that barley conceal the skin.  Designer shoes, even stilettos, were aplenty—some peeking out from under long colorful skirts that barely refrain from touching the ground and others, paired with tea length skirts or wide leg pants, completely visible and screaming for attention.

Most interesting was the new “tailored” look that ensured that the curves of the wearer’s body were visible, even through layers of clothing.  The traditional tesettür (a scarf and lightweight topcoat worn over clothing) has been updated from a rather formless trench to a fitted, belted, and flattering garment with coordinating colorful scarf.  The sheer tunic was another curious addition.  At the Istanbul airport, I encountered a group of women similarly dressed in spaghetti strap tanks, form-fitting pants, high-heels, and long sheer tunics to top off the outfit.  According to conservative demands, their hair was completely covered but their outfits left little to the imagination.  Their destination, the resort city of Bodrum, might explain their attire, but one has to wonder—is the definition of modesty shifting?

Discussing this trend with acquaintances in Istanbul, I received many opinions, some angry and others resigned.  One business professional found the increase in religious garb of any kind to be a threat to the ideals of the Turkish Republic.  She exclaimed,

If you want something from the government in power, you have to be of a conservative religious background.  What do you do to prove your religious commitment? You cover your wife and daughters!  Actions, beliefs, what is in your heart—these things do not matter.  All you have to do is cover the females, fast during Ramadan, and you are a Muslim in good standing who can get favors from the government.  I find it hypocritical.  In this mindset, women are judged by what they wear and a man’s honor depends upon how the females are dressed.

Another woman explained that the women who are pushing the limits of modesty with their provocative dress are trying to “feel like women.  Young or old, women want to feel sexy—for their husbands and for themselves.”  She also pointed out that many of these outfits are very costly and that they are more acceptable in appearance to secular Turks.  I later found that some secularists call women in full traditional black formless Islamic garb “bugs.”  These anonymous “bugs” have no individual identity and are often perceived as backward, powerless, and for some, are seen as something to fear.  As one Turkish woman pointed out, “I remember what happened in Iran, and I am fearful.  They [the bugs] represent what may come.”

Over the last decade, the increase in women wearing hijab mirrored Turkey’s move toward a conservative Islamic mode of politics.  If “bugs” represent “what may come,” I can’t help wonder if it is also possible that these burgeoning provocative Islamic fashion trends are signaling an alternative twist in Turkey’s political future?

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