Turkish women cover up in style

Fashion: Scarf-wearing observers of conservative Islam eye Western trends and don flashy designs and fabrics.

May 07, 1999|By Shira J. Boss | Shira J. Boss,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Fashion has come to the Islamic woman, and Turkey is emerging as the Islamic fashion capital.

Istanbul's scarf-wearing Muslim women want to show that following Islam does not mean oppression, as many in the West think. In fact, it does not have to mean being any less fashionable than a more fully clothed version of a Parisian or a New Yorker.

Nothing more offends covered Turkish women than being grouped with the Darth Vader-look-alike figures in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Trend-setting women in Turkey's major cities shop at Vakko, Turkey's top department store, for the same brightly patterned $100 silk scarves that are a favorite with uncovered tourists. They have their own runway fashion shows, and styles evolve with each change of season.

Turkey has never looked like other Islamic countries in the Middle East. Although more than 99 percent of Turkey's population is Muslim, the state is secular. The caliphate -- the spiritual authority -- was abolished in 1924, and Turkey's Westward-looking President Kemal Ataturk proscribed such traditional clothing as women's veils and men's fezzes.

Turkish women since then have covered up with loose clothing rather than flowing black robes and have worn white or colorful cotton scarves rather than long veils. Increasingly, the look is Islamic, but with Western style. In addition to adopting silk scarves, the cover-ups of urban women have evolved into coordinated ensembles of suede, khaki, even leather.

In recent years, conservative Islam has enjoyed a revival in Turkey, and more urban women -- about half -- are covering themselves according to the Koran's instructions. Istanbul's covered trends are increasingly followed by the Islamic avant-garde in the rest of the Middle East.

Long known for its textiles, Turkey exports high-fashion scarves to other Islamic countries, whose urban women are finding liberation in flashier designs and fabrics. Even in formerly strict Iran, some women venture to wear colorful scarves perched farther back on the head, looking more like an ornament than a religious covering.

Promoting covered women's wear is more than a business for Mustafa Karaduman, president of Tekbir, Turkey's leading Islamic clothing company. "It's a mission," he says. The more stylish the clothes, the more likely women are to cover themselves willingly.

But some "modern" Turks, as they call themselves, see covered women -- especially those who flaunt their religion in trendy urban fashions -- as symbols of a rising fundamentalism that could alienate Turkey from its European neighbors. They say the wearers are supporters of "political Islam," an increasingly popular movement toward a more religious society.

"You're making a statement by dressing that way," says Esra Gencturk, a marketing professor at Koc University in Istanbul. "It's an outward sign of what group you belong to and that religion should be a part of political, economic and social decisions."

Since March of last year, some universities have enforced a ban on women wearing head scarves in schools, denying covered students entry to classes. It is an old battle in Turkey.

"Growing up I remember seeing students on television protesting," says Aynur Demirel, a 23-year-old covered medical student at Istanbul University. "My father didn't want me to start wearing the scarf because he thought it would cause problems with my education later. He was right!"

Demirel wears silk scarves and the latest styles and colors of hijab, the full-length covering. But when she was growing up in her village she wore a loosely tied cotton scarf, in the mode of the countryside. It was not until she was 15 and became more involved with the study of the Koran that she started tightly wrapping her scarves so that no hair would show.

While some conservatives see covering as a measure of piety, Islamic religious leaders say that it is not one of the five pillars of Islam, and that a woman who chooses not to cover herself is no less a Muslim for not doing so.

Those who do cover are doing it with gusto. Vendors at street markets now sell rip-off versions of signature scarves by Hermes and Anne Klein. Animal prints, painted-on gold designs and velvety burn-out fabrics are recent trends that have gone straight from European runways to Istanbul boulevards.

With the more stylish scarves have come accessories. Since silk is slippery and not as easily tied as cotton, three or more straight pins -- sometimes tipped with gold drops or pearls -- are used to hold them in place. Tight black caps, which used to be made by hand, are now mass-produced to wear under scarves to keep all the hair tucked in and provide a base upon which to pin the silk.

An older women will match a fancy silk scarf to the rest of her outfit. The younger generation will wrap, twist and pin the scarves into various formations. The latest, most chic style is to cross the ends of the scarf under the chin, then tie them in back of the head to outline it.

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