By Alexandra Hudson, Reuters Faith World
(Reuters Life!) – Along Istanbul’s busy Eminonu waterfront women swathed in dark coats and scarves knotted once under the chin jostle past others clad in vivid colors and head coverings carefully sculpted around the face.
Two decades ago such a polished, pious look scarcely existed in Turkey. But today it has the highest profile exponents in First Lady Hayrunnisa Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s wife Emine, and the brands behind it plan ambitious expansion.
The headscarf remains one of Turkey’s most divisive issues. Everything from the way it is tied and accessorized, to the poise and demeanor of the wearer, is laden with meaning in this majority Muslim but officially secular country of 74 million.
From a simple headcovering, stigmatized in the early days of the Turkish Republic as backward and rural, it has become, in the last decades, a carefully crafted garment and highly marketable commodity, embodying the challenge of a new class of conservative Muslims to Turkey’s secularist elites.
“It was hard to find anything chic for the covered women 10 years ago, but fashion for pious women has made huge progress in the last 6-7 years,” said Alpaslan Akman, an executive in charge of production and marketing at Muslim fashion brand Armine.
Armine is known for its high-impact campaigns. Huge posters have hung in the heart of Istanbul’s bar and nightclub district — the serene models contrasting with the commotion below.
The brand teams colorful scarves with figure-skimming coats, pert collars, big buttons and ruffled sleeves.
A coat typically sells for around 200 Turkish lira ($143.2), while scarves retail for around 50 lira.
“We are much luckier than previous generations, we have more designs and colors of scarves to choose from,” said 30-year-old Filiz Albayrak, a sales assistant in an Istanbul scarf shop.
Around 69 percent of Turkish women cover their heads in some form, with 16 percent using the more concealing and self-consciously stylish “turban” style scarf, which tightly covers the hair and neck, according to a 2007 study.
Getting it to sit right takes much time and effort, and usually requires an under bonnet to first provide a stiff base.
Turkey’s first lady, who wears a turban, co-hosted Republic Day celebrations with her husband for the first time last month, in a sign of confidence among the pious establishment.
Encountering Hayrunissa Gul in her headscarf in the Presidential Palace was too much for the staunchly secularist military however, who refused to show up.
Mustafa Karaduman, founder of Islamic fashion house Tekbir in 1982 and nicknamed “Allah’s Tailor” in the Turkish media, sees the changes in society and is hopeful of further growth. “Our work was quite amateur in the first decade. Then in 1992 we organized the very first headscarf fashion show, which brought us global attention. Now Islamic style clothes are on the agenda everywhere around the world,” he said.