Short Skirts and Black Cloaks: Observations on Modesty in a Modern Muslim Metropolis
Our first day in Istanbul we notice the flocks of veiled women. A modern Muslim metropolis, Istanbul boasts a dazzling variety of expressions of what constitutes appropriately modest Muslim dress. Many women wear headscarves that they tie or drape over their hair, framing their faces. Many more women barely cover anything at all. But the most noticeable women to the western eye are cloaked in black from head to toe with a slit for their eyes, sometimes a narrow band of black cloth stretches over the bridge of the nose. Sometimes they wear gloves, even in late August. We see these women everywhere we go in Istanbul. We see her shopping with a young husband at her side, who may be stylishly dressed in designer sportswear or comfortably casual in shorts and a soccer shirt. We see her sightseeing with young children, precocious girls and rambunctious boys with dark curls, faces and limbs bare to the sun and admiring eyes. To our eyes these veiled women are inscrutable. They represent a reality that is a world away from our own.
These women appear to be faceless, anonymous, indistinguishable from one another. The inability to distinguish any features of their faces makes it hard to think of them as individuals with an independent spirit and will of their own. French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas said that agency is revealed in the face. The face-to-face encounter with another person, the recognition of her as a person with features like my own makes an ethical demand on me. When we encounter another face the person behind those eyes is more real to us, less foreign, less easy to disregard as other than me.
Yet, these women withdraw their faces from view. Dark, cloaked, and faceless. My boyfriend, Morgan says they remind him of the Grim Reaper. He calls them “Angels of Death.” At first glance, the women draped in black cloaks are indistinguishable from one another. But a closer look reveals details, offering glimpses of their individual personalities. Intricate lace trim in black or gold along hems and sleeves, Prada and Gucci handbags, the occasional spiked heel peeking out from beneath the floor-length black cloak. And once, a bright green Easter bonnet perched atop a cloaked head passes us by. I try to imagine who they are, travelling through an exciting metropolis, under their black cloaks. Do they feel empowered, emboldened by their anonymity, being able to navigate through a city of over 14 million without drawing any prying gazes or unwanted attention, drifting like ghosts down the avenues hidden in plain sight? Were veils to them the equivalent of wearing mirrored sunglasses to the beach, allowing them to see without being seen?
Morgan and I argued about these cloaked women one night over beers. Like most good feminists he reads the veil as a symbol of patriarchy, male domination, and female oppression. Maybe. But history has shown that powerful women often emerge from within patriarchal systems. Veiled women could still be rebels. Just differently rebellious, I argued. I watched as fully veiled women, pushed to the front of lines or boldly used their iPhones to take pictures in places where we were clearly and repeatedly warned that photography was forbidden. These women were modestly veiled but did not otherwise appear to be meek. Perhaps wearing the veil does not, in and of itself, strip a woman of her agency as an individual subject.
Scholarship of Muslim feminist movements, like that done by Elizabeth Bucar, show that the Islamic veil is not merely a visible emblem of female oppression. The many different styles of Islamic veils reveal the multiplicity of meanings of veiling. Veiling can be an expression of a woman’s understanding of her role within a community and within a divinely-ordained social order. It can express religious ethical principles, ethnic identity, and one’s individual style. Just as many western women do not undress in front of strangers, a veil can express a belief that a wife’s beauty is for her husband’s eyes alone.
The many varieties and meanings of the veil illustrate an important dimension of Islam. Unlike Roman Catholicism, there is no institutional hierarchy in Islam that exercises systematic doctrinal control. Much like within Protestant Christianity, there are many schools of interpretation and application of religious doctrine. While a Saudi woman may understand the religious duty to veil as requiring her to conceal her face, an Indonesian woman may read the same doctrine as calling for a hair covering that frames her face in a flattering way. Veil styling has long been a flashpoint in secular Turkey, where a headscarf tied under the chin was associated with a rural, peasant past that modern Turkey sought to shed.
As Muslim countries modernize, an interesting phenomenon emerges. In the last quarter of the last century, during which time more women in predominantly Muslim countries entered into the labor force, the number of women wearing Islamic veils also increased. As Bucar notes in her Beginner’s Guide: The Islamic Veil, this fact challenges the secular conviction that the veil necessarily operates as an obstacle to women’s advancement. There are many reasons why a woman may choose to veil upon entering the workforce. Some women may see the veil as a sort of mobile honor zone, a cloak that enables them to move freely in a man’s world without fear of being an object of sexual harassment. Others may adopt the veil as a symbol of their commitment to traditional values, even as they assume less traditional public roles. Fiscally responsible working women can use the Islamic veil as a way to save money on otherwise expensive work clothes. Still others may see the Islamic veil as a way to embrace a vision of modernity that includes female economic empowerment but rejects materialism, consumerism, and hypersexualization of the female body, a perfect storm of values that many non-westerners believe epitomize all that is wrong with the West.
In Turkey, the politics of the veil have circled around this question of whether modernization must always mean westernization, whether Islamic veiling can be reconciled with modernity. Just over a year ago, in October, 2013, under the leadership of then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey lifted a ban that prohibited women from wearing Islamic headscarves to jobs in the civil service. The ban still applies to women serving in the military, police, and judiciary. But its lifting reflects a change in Turkish political views on democracy and modernity.
Founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, staunchly held that secularism was the key to Turkish modernization and democratization. Atatürk’s reforms sought to modernize Turkey through westernization of social, political, and cultural institutions. He sought to remake Turkey in a European image, even exchanging Arabic script for the Latin alphabet. The 1925 Hat Law permitted Panama hats but prohibited the traditional fez or turban. A 1934 law prohibited the wearing of “Prohibited Garments”, which included the Islamic veil. Atatatürk’s vision was for Turkey to enter modernity as a secular state. The veil was banned in public. Turks were to embrace their Turkish identity above any religious identity.
In the 1980s, after a military coup, the secular military introduced a constitution that explicitly forbade veiling in public institutions, including universities. The ban against wearing the veil in universities was ultimately lifted after a protracted political battle. Women seeking to attain higher education and greater career opportunities challenged the longstanding position of constitutional courts that democracy depends on a public square that is free from religion. But Turkey is rapidly changing, and Turks are increasingly asserting their religious identities and values in public life.
But the question of whether Islam is compatible with modernization is one that other nations also are asking themselves. Western European nations watch Turkey, eager to learn the lessons of increased public expressions of Muslim religiosity in the public square. This trend coincides with the tenure of current President Erdogan, who is associated with a wave of Islamicization of Turkey. First elected to national office as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan chairs the conservative AK Parti, which rose to power by attracting religious voters from the heartland. As president, Erdogan has expressed a desire to spearhead constitutional amendments that would increase and centralize the powers of his office. His government has a poor track record on individual civil liberties. He evinces a political philosophy of majoritarian democracy, one in which protesters who speak out against the will of the majority are deemed traitorous. Erdogan has also famously rejected gender equality, stating last autumn, “You cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different.”
One college student with whom Morgan and I spoke during our travels expressed fears that the nation could become increasingly politically religious. He noted that the majority to whom Erdogan owes his political successes is largely uneducated. His fears reflect a skepticism that Islam and modernity are compatible.
Turkey is certainly modernizing in its own unique way. Istanbul is a city of over 14 million that bridges East and West, old and new, the religious and the secular. Women draped in long, loose black cloaks, with face-veils, covering them from head-to-toe were the most noticeable feature of the Istanbul peoplescape. But they are a small minority. I saw many more women clad in short, tight skirts and low plunging blouses, bare shoulders and tight bodices than modestly veiled women cloaked from head to toe. By far the most common sartorial expression of Islamic modesty among women in Istanbul was a stylish, tailored trenchcoat-like dress over slim black pants with a headscarf pinned or wrapped to securely to cover her hair. Most, but not all, of the headscarves I saw were solid colors. Many were simple black, which women everywhere know goes with everything. However, it remains to be seen whether the lifting of bans prohibiting women from veiling in halls of higher education and government and the flocks of black-cloaked women in Istanbul’s public squares represent a new form of modernization or a prelude to an anti-modern reversal.