Scarf and Make-Up, the Modern Face of Islam

Istanbul is a city of mosques. Some grand and others smaller, they are in every neighborhood. Their presence cannot be ignored. The domes and minarets shine at night under colorful lights. They give the city a sense of the past gracefully making its place in the present. At the time of azan, Qur’an readings are heard from loudspeakers across the city. The azan is heard everywhere: in rich and poor neighborhoods, and in Turkish and immigrant quarters. All music stops with the very first words out of the loudspeakers. Cafes and restaurants shut down their music boxes. For a short few minutes, the azan dominates. It is the only sound to be heard. The past rules the present. Tradition overrides the modern. The city belongs to the mosques. And this occurs merely based on an unwritten social contract between the citizens-the modernists and the traditionalists, the secular and the religious, the Muslim and the non-Muslim. There is no role for the state, its laws, and its bureaucracy. During the azan, it is the civil society that governs. “We do it out of respect. It is not forced on us by the government” explained Ali, a young Kurd working in an outdoor teahouse in Sultanahmet.

After all, perhaps there is a way for the secular and the non-secular to live in peace in the East. Perhaps!

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Turkey and Iran both experienced fundamental changes in the past two decades. In Iran, a sweeping revolution toppled the secular Pahlavi Monarchy in 1979 and brought to power a theocracy-an Islamic state. In Turkey, a military coup d’état ended the existing civilian government in 1980 and proceeded with a broad program of modernization and Westernization under the military rule.

Despite the difference in appearance, there are many similarities between the developments in Iran and Turkey in the past two decades. In both countries, the state was actively engaged in restructuring the society through constructing new cultural images and reshaping the modes of social behavior. Central to this project was the state construction-directly in Iran, and indirectly in Turkey-of a new image for women. Body politics played an important role in state’s social engineering. Women’s body and lived experiences became subject of struggle for power.

Constructing a New Woman: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Coup d’état in Turkey

Twenty-two years ago, political Islam triumphed in Iran. The founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran launched an ambitious social project-building an Islamic utopia on earth. Constructing a society based on Islamic laws, they sought to build an earthly alternative to the cultural and political imperatives of the West. The utopia was comprehensive and universal in its scope. It promised a vague notion of Islamic social justice, and vowed to protect all those left out or negatively affected by the Shah’s modernization policy. The utopia gave self-respect to the masses of marginalized and disenfranchised people, and a sense of political freedom from foreign domination. Defining the utopia in opposition to the West, the state banned all symbols of secularism, and cultural products that represented the Western world’s “cultural assault.” They crusaded against the “Satanic West,” and hoped to mold a new generation of Iranians based on Islamic virtuosity-a population opposed to all Western values.

Central to the construction of the new society was the state domination of women and their body. A well-defined body politics emerged from the inception of the Islamic Republic: The control of women’s body was to be a pillar of a new hierarchical and patriarchic society. The Islamic Republic’s imagined utopia was a society of tamed women and obedient men. The Islamic hijab was used as a primary instrument of domination.

Forcing the hijab on women, separating male and female students in universities, and banning all contact between them, the state sought to create a society of virtuous Muslims: a space of repressed worldly desires. Through diverse means and methods, it hoped to construct a culture in which secular happiness was a sin, and human love was an unforgivable crime. It opposed and banned music, arts, and all cultural symbols of modern life. Bright colors of joy were replaced with dark colors of anger and fear. Happiness was a worldly sin, laughter a crime. Death and martyrdom were celebrated. A cultural model of morbidity and sorrowfulness was constructed. The state-controlled radio and television monopolies constantly aired religious programs, Qur’an readings, images of virtuous Muslim men and women, grim faces, and graphic images of the devastating war with Iraq: young men blown into pieces, and blood. The Islamic Utopia celebrated death!

Turkey followed a different path from Iran. It aggressively moved in the opposite direction-the Westernization of the society and its culture. The media, businesses, and the state worked together to secularize this traditional and deeply Islamic society. Helped by a powerful military and guided by the desire to join the European Union, Turkey made all necessary cosmetic changes, transforming the appearance of the society. Worshiping the West and its appearances became a virtue. The state hoped to build a Western utopia in a non-Western society.

Similar to the Islamic utopia, the Turkish utopia had its body politics. A new Turkish woman was to be the cornerstone of the utopia. Looking modern and Westernized, she was to be the cosmetic pillar of the new society. Both Iran and Turkey were building new images, one opposing the West, the other embracing it. Iran banned the exposure of women’s body curves. In Turkey, pictures of half-naked women were exhibited on billboards and in daily newspapers.

A New Body Politics: Challenging the State and its Utopia

Help us to explain that a headscarf is not a political symbol, we have a right to think politically, but we consider the piousness as our tradition above all. Enough is enough. Give, one of you, your support to us. Write something showing that you understand us. And perceive this as a woman’s right.

An open letter by a twenty-five year old Muslim woman from Turkey

It was a few years ago. I went to a restaurant with my parents, husband, and my child. We ordered our food and waited. Thinking that we were ordinary people, like other ordinary people in other parts of the world, we talked and laughed quietly. A few minutes gone, a boy approached us. Thirteen or fourteen years of age, armed, angry, he was as rude as one could be. Looking at my mother he shouted: “Are you not ashamed of yourself for laughing in public?”Tell us once, why laughter is a sin.

An open letter by a mother in the Islamic Republic of Iran

A fantastic grassroots and unorganized movement against the Islamic hijab emerged in Iran since the early 1990s. Two decades after its creation, the effort to build an anti-Western society is energizing a creative movement for its antithesis: a society based on Western values and culture. A revolution in culture is occurring in Iran. The young people of Iran embrace the satanic West, long for its forbidden fruit, and wish to escape the Islamic paradise for a life of sin and decadence. They are the crusaders of change, warriors of a different utopia-the MTV utopia. The Islamic utopia is defeated by an array of seductive cultural products: the Internet, MTV, satellite dishes, Hollywood, and all that is decadent.

Young and older, the Iranian women defy the Islamic hijab publicly, and confront the state’s Islamic body politics with a body politics of their own. The youth mock the Islamic hijab, deconstruct it, reform it, and make it succumb to their modern desires. They reveal their hair in public by pushing back their mandated headscarf, transforming it into a garment used for their beautification. Against all cultural mandates of the Islamic state, they reveal their body curves under their remodeled and modernized “Islamic” garb. They wear loud makeup, walk elegantly, and bring their sexuality to the public. They reject the control of their body by the state, and celebrate their womanhood by defying the Islamic hijab.

A new reality has emerged in Iran-a reality created by women. The Iranian women are playing an instrumental role in the grassroots challenge to the Islamic Republic through their deconstruction of the hijab and their direct challenge of the state’s body politics. Challenging the Islamic dress code, they use the everyday life as the site for gaining rights and respect from the society and the state. They demand the right to live as free women. Humiliated, assaulted, and arrested randomly for being women, they have gained resilience, lost their fears of confronting the state, and battled the repressive social and cultural Islamic codes of conduct. Using deviance as a weapon, they are creating a reality unimagined by the architects of the Islamic Republic.

In some ways, an opposite movement has occurred in Turkey. While experiencing an aggressive state-managed modernization project, Turkey was swept by a growing oppositional Islamic movement in the 1980s and after. Closely watched by the military and the business establishment, Islamic parties gained support in big cities, recruiting those living on the margins of the society: the unemployed, low-wage workers, shanty town dwellers, and the urban poor. They focused on the segment of the population that was left out and marginalized by the process of modernization, and gained from the failures of the modernization process. They built clinics and schools, provided the poor with free personal and social services, and made themselves a living alternative to the existing economic and social order. The Islamists ran for office under the banner of the Welfare Party, and had their first Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1996. Erbakan resigned from his post in June 1997 as a result of a concerted campaign by the military. On November 3, 2002, political Islam returned to power with the landslide parliamentary victory of Justice and Development Party (AKP).

I visited Istanbul thirteen years ago. That was still the early stages of the rise of political Islam in the country, and the state’s massive campaign to “modernize” the society. Two parallel but opposite movements were marching ahead: Islamization, and modernization-albeit shallow modernization. Both movements grew in strength in the 1990s. I returned to Istanbul in September 2002. A sea change had occurred between the two visits.

Istanbul is a profoundly more Western, and more Islamic city now. The number of women wearing some form of Islamic hijab has significantly increased. Hijab is everywhere. It is as noticeable as the hip, and western outfit worn by other women in Istanbul. They are there together. Groups of women-some in the Islamic hijab, and others in the outfits of the “infidel”-are seen strolling together, conversing, laughing, and enjoying a unique sense of peace and coexistence.

The Islamic hijab is far from uniform in its form and style. Three broad genres of hijab are dominant. The scene is remarkably fascinating. There are women who fashion a long baggy robe and a headscarf to hide from the public their hair and body curves. This was the dress code celebrated in the Islamic Republic of Iran and forced on the secularized and modernized women of Iran by the state. But, here in Istanbul, the same hijab is, in some sense, a defiance of the secularism of the state. Often chosen by older women, by those who were the product of a more traditional Turkey-Turkey before the coup d’état-the Iranian hijab is a part of the Islamic body politics, a new development of the past two decades.

What is especially intriguing is the hijab of the younger generation, the children of modern Turkey-teenagers, high school students, and young women in their early twenties. Their hijab is a collage, a mix of tradition and modern in the body politics of the same person: a sign of the coexistence of two distinct worlds in Turkey. Visually intriguing, it is the best embodiment of contemporary Turkey and all its social contradictions. Here, the hair is entirely covered in a bright and colorful headscarf that resonates a keen consciousness of female sexuality. In most cases, the hidden hair is more than compensated by the elegant beautification of the face with the use of all modern inventions and Western notions of femininity.

Conflicting, collage-like, and elegantly designed, the young woman’s Islamic head is juxtaposed on a body that is simply modern, non-Islamic, and often seductive. Contrary to the baggy robes of the first hijab, the young Muslim woman’s body curves are revealed under the Western, and sexually appealing outfits-tight and colorful pants and blouses. The body is riddled with sexual consciousness and the willingness to be sexual in public.

The Iranian-style hijab is dominant in Istanbul’s slums and shantytowns, and more religious quarters of the city. It is the hijab of the poor and the lower middle class of Turkey-those neglected or negatively affected by Turkey’s hyper-Westernization. Of course, occasionally, one sees the Saudi Arabian model of the Islamic hijab-women entirely covered in black, only revealing their eyes. But, this is far from dominant. It is a rarity even in very religious neighborhoods of Istanbul.

The Iranian-style hijab became a landmark in Turkey’s body politics during the gradual ascendance of the Welfare Party. The party brought a sense of respect, discipline, and order to the poor. For the forgotten and marginalized poor, all of these were welcomed developments. Religious order and self-respect completed the welfare program of the party. The Welfare Party’s motto of “Just Order” won the hearts and minds of the poor. Here too, political Islam arrived with a cultural model, and an image of the virtuous woman. The Islamic hijab was its banner in the march towards an alternative paradigm.

The collage-like hijab is the hijab of the children of the educated Turks, higher incomes Turks, and those influenced by the culture of Westernization. This is the landmark of Justice and Development Party, the new Islamic party in power, and a party with supporters far beyond the poor in city slums and shantytowns. The new party has large support among the youth, the educated Turks, and the students. Political Islam has won the hearts and minds of the non-marginalized Turks. It brought to its ranks younger women in deconstructed hijab-the collage of Islam and the West-a new Islamic aesthetics.

In the streets of Istanbul, the Western outfit, and all types of the Islamic Hijab coexist through a delicate relationship in the civil society. Secularism or the religiousness of one’s outfit is not mandated by the state. There is no state body politics. But, this ends with the young woman’s entry into educational institutions or government offices-spaces where the state mandates its secularism. The hijab is banned. Turkey’s “measured democracy” shows its face.

Denied of the right to enter schools with her choice of the hijab, the young Muslim woman is made to be creative. The state should not be offended. But the hijab must prevail. “Hijab sends an important message that a person does not have to see my body to have a conversation with me,” said a female student from Istanbul University. She feels a need for protection from the eyes of men. She takes shelter under her hijab. The state reacts. It removes the shelter, and the perceived protection of the hijab. An open battle of different body politics emerges. Hats, caps, wings, and other forms of cover that are commonly used in the West for their beautification of the body are appropriated by the young Muslim woman in Turkey to deceive the state. They are used as hijab-a “Western hijab”-one not objected by the secular state. A third model of hijab has, thus, emerged in response to the state and its body politics.

Like their Iranian counterparts, these young women use all possible means to go beyond the state-mandated identity, defining and creating their own identity. But, unlike their Iranian counterparts, they defy the state’s secularization of their identity, struggling to be Islamic. And while some young women triumph by adapting to the new rules and changing the appearance of their Islamic hijab, others refuse to change, pleading to the public for understanding and support. They vow to preserve their hijab as a woman’s right.

“Write something showing that you understand us. And perceive this as a woman’s right,” pleaded a young Turkish woman in an open letter to the newspapers. Her plea is sobering. It is a fundamental question asked of enlightened seculars. It tests the limits of their beliefs, their commitment to individual rights, and their support for the democratic process in Turkey. Though under the hijab, her discourse is modern, it is a discourse of rights. Can a secular society in Turkey or elsewhere tolerate the non-secular “other?” Can it coexist with its symbols of otherness-the hijab in this case?

This is a test for Iran and Turkey in the coming years, both on a path to change and a hope for democratization. The passage to unconditional democracy, not “measured democracy,” or “Islamic Democracy” necessitates a peaceful solution to the age-long tension between Islam and modernism. The hijab-forcefully imposed or removed-is but one visually apparent sign of this tension.

Welcome to Europe

Behind the main entrance of Bosphorus University-the Turkish equivalent of French “Grandes Ecoles”, forming Turkish business and political elite-there is a makeshift room. Small and painted green, a window covered with closed curtains, and not noticed by most passersby: the room is no more than five feet inside the campus behind the gate.

I accidentally noticed the room one early afternoon. A young Muslim student in an Islamic headscarf entered the gate, walked to the room, opened the door and disappeared. A few minutes gone, the door opened, and the student reemerged. The headscarf removed, her hair tucked under a thick winter hat in a hot and smoggy afternoon, she proceeded to the campus, once again disappearing from my sight. I stood guard, watching the room from distance. Leaving the campus, a woman wearing a winter hat entered the room. The door was shut closed and reopened shortly after. The woman emerged with an Islamic headscarf, crossed the gate, and entered the world outside the beautiful Bosphorus University. She was Muslim again.

I closed my eyes and reflected on the sign on a bridge on the Bosphorus: “Welcome to Europe!”

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is an international political economists and the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights (SUNY Press, 2002). He is currently in the Middle East researching for his upcoming book, Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Muslim Migrant (Verso Books). He can be reached at