Turkish women wearing the hijab

Blue Mosque in Istanbul at sunset © Ricky Yates

Blue Mosque in Istanbul at sunset © Ricky Yates

Over the past fifteen or so years, there has been a marked increase in the number of women from Muslim families living Western societies, who have taken to wearing the hijab or headscarf. This trend, which I have previously observed when living in the UK, was very evident on the streets of Turkey during my recent visit. As I remarked at the end of my last post, this is a very obvious outward sign of the increasing Islamization of the supposedly secular state of Turkey. It is also the source of much tension and controversy within the country.

The usual explanation offered as to why most Islamic teachers insist that Muslim women should wear the hijab, is that the Koran states that women should ‘dress modestly’. This raises a number of questions. Who decides what is or isn’t modest? Why is wearing a headscarf that covers a woman’s hair and neck deemed to be modest? Why is it deemed immodest for a Muslim woman to show her hair in public?

I observed some Turkish women who wore the hijab with a loose fitting full-length coat that revealed no obvious body shape and no bare skin except the hands and face. One could reasonably argue that they were dressed modestly. But if a woman dressed in this manner was accompanied by a man, presumably their husband, then almost without exception, that man was dressed in the latest Western fashion, usually jeans and a designer shirt! A very clear case of ‘one rule for men and a completely different rule for women’. And what so many Muslim men quietly forget is that the Koran calls for women and men to dress modestly.

However, the vast majority of women wearing the hijab combine it with outfits that are predominantly the epitome of Western women’s fashion. Some will wear a shawl that goes around their shoulders and hangs down as far as their waist, thus covering the shape of their breasts. Other wear a hijab which is itself long enough to cover the upper part of their torso. But many Turkish women I observed, dressed no differently than their counterparts on the streets of Prague or London, other than wearing a headscarf covering their hair and neck.

The ultimate example I saw was a woman walking up and across the snow-white hillside and paddling in the shallow pools of warm spring water at Pamukkale. She was duly wearing her hijab. But the rest of her outfit consisted of a short-sleeved tight fitting tee-shirt, with silvery decoration on the front that very much emphasised her breasts, together with skin-tight low waisted jeans which revealed the top half of her G-string when she bent over! What on earth was the point of her wearing a hijab? The rest of her outfit was in total contradiction to what the hijab is supposedly meant to express.

I am awfully aware that I am a male Christian minister making these observations and comments. However, I was reassured in my observations and conclusions by reading the blog of a woman, now living in Prague, who previously lived in Turkey for a year. Sezin Koehler makes very similar remarks in her blog post entitled ‘Turkish Delight Vol. 11 – Stilettos and headscarves’. Sezin clearly saw many more extreme examples than I did such as bare midriffs, miniskirts and stiletto-healed boots combined with a hijab. She too points out the utter contradiction of women wearing such outfits.

As part of his efforts to modernise Turkey and bring it, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century, Ataturk banned the wearing of headgear by both men and women, in all government buildings which, amongst other places, includes universities. He himself, adopted western dress as an example for Turkish citizens to follow. The current Turkish government recently tried to introduce a change in the law to allow women to wear the hijab in universities. This was passed in parliament but thrown out by the constitutional court because it was deemed incompatible with Ataturk’s secular constitution.

Part of me has great reservations about laws that seek to prevent anyone from wearing something that is an expression of their faith. If you say to Muslim women that they cannot wear a hijab whilst attending classes in schools or universities, then the corollary is that Christian women should be prevented from wearing a cross in the same places. So at one level, I would want to defend a woman’s right to wear the hijab if she genuinely and personally wants to do so because she believes it to be and expression of her faith. But as I have already pointed out, there is frequently a considerable contradiction and hypocrisy on the part of many women who do so. However, it is equally true that many Western women who wear a cross, often wear it more as a fashion accessory rather than as an expression of personal faith.

What I really object to is the other reasoning given by Islamic teachers (always male!) as to why women should wear the hijab. It is to stop men looking at women as sex objects and to allay male lust because; male lust is the fault and responsibility of women! When objecting to this perverse reasoning, for once, my being a male is to my advantage.

This perverse reasoning is not confined solely to male Islamic teachers. It is used by some defence lawyers and their male clients in mitigation for the offence of rape or the attempted rape of a woman. The poor female victim is accused of being at least partly responsible for the crime committed against her because she was wearing a short skirt or a top that showed too much cleavage.

As a male, I hope that I can look at a woman who is dressed attractively and be able to say, “She looks nice”, without any need to molest her in any manner. To be able to appreciate her God given beauty rather blame her for leading me astray. To recognise women as complimentary and equal to men, rather than seeking to subjugate them. To not see women as purely a temptation to sin. For however much certain Islamic teachers may protest otherwise, the day to day practice of Islam does effectively turn women into second-class citizens and insisting that women must wear the hijab is in many ways indicative of that.

However, before being too critical about how some people dress in the Islamic world, it should be said that we in the West can often also be far too concerned about the way we and other people look. Why is it that many politicians now use image consultants? I am always reminded of the words of God to Samuel the prophet as recorded in the Old Testament. “The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. 1 Samuel 16 v7

What matter most is not our outward dress or appearance but our inner motives and attitudes.

Blue Mosque in Istanbul through fountain © Ricky Yates

Blue Mosque in Istanbul through fountain © Ricky Yates

12 comments to Turkish women wearing the hijab

  • Great post Ricky! I very much appreciate that Western men celebrate Western women and that they take responsibility for their reaction towards them (most of the time). What I don’t understand about Islamic female dress is: aren’t those chadors a pain in the neck? They look incredibly annoying to wear. How are people supposed to not be scared of you when your face is fully covered like an outlaw? I used to help this ten-year-old little girl who’s father would always force her to wear a niqab. It freaked me out because I had no ability to read her facial expressions. And she was 10! God knows how unnerving it would be if she was a grown-up. I would always ask her to lift her veil so I could see her face. A beautiful, innocent smile would always greet me. It made me so sad that someone felt this child’s face was threatening to males and needed to be covered.

    I do think Muslim people have a point about the West’s lack of boundaries and appropriate dress. I take their point but without all of the annoying Islamic female styles that to me represent oppression rather than modesty.
    .-= Karen´s last blog ..Inside Milos Forman’s Connecticut Home =-.

  • Ricky

    Hi Karen – Thanks for your thoughtful and appreciative comment. I’m sure you are right that many varieties of Islamic female dress are incredibly uncomfortable to wear, especially when it is warm!

    We saw relatively few women in Turkey wearing the niqab, though there were some, especially in the very conservative city of Konya. And I am amazed that a father would expect a ten-year-old girl to wear one. My understanding has always been that the ‘modest dress code’ only applied to adult women which would normally be interpreted as being those who had begun to have their period and would therefore be capable of childbearing. Having said that, some girls do start having their period when they are no more than ten or eleven.

    I do agree with you entirely that we express so much with our faces and cannot understand any reasoning why female ones should be hidden from public view. It does represent oppression, not modesty.

    Some Western women do on occasions, dress inappropriately, as do some Western men. But I do believe in individual freedom of expression and that it is not the role of governments or religous teachers to tell women or men what they should or shouldn’t wear.

  • Hear, hear! Excellent post, Ricky – and I should have said so in the first place (ie on previous visit).
    But our Western customs do allow for freedom of speech – ie we don’t these days burn books in public because we find them offensive (at least only a few did that within living memory, and that was in one place nearly 70 years ago); nor do we call for the authors of said books to be slaughtered.
    And sending a terrorist to murder a Danish cartoonist who’s dared point out the obvious correlation between Islam and terrorism in an attempt to prove that Islam doesn’t breed terrorists seems a tad self-contradictory to me, inter alia. Oh, and ‘we’ don’t do that sort of thing, either. If we did, there’d be no cartoonists, humourists or comedians standing.
    .-= Minnie´s last blog ..A free rein for escapism =-.

  • I understand that for some it is an expression of their faith but also for some it is an expression of their repression

  • Muslim Girl

    Hi! I liked your post especially when you talk about the Muslim women “contradiction/hypocrisy.” However I would like to clear something out here especially about the point you have made about Islamic teachers saying that the primary purpose of wearing the headscarf is for the purpose of not getting attention from men. I want to mention here, as a muslim woman myself, that the primary reason for covering is the reason that our God has commanded it upon us. All the other reasons come after this reason. I do want to also say here that just because we wear hijab or the headscarf does not mean that we believe that it is an ultimate protection from men. Every men is different, some men would find a covered woman more attractive than an uncovered woman, so that is why I am saying that we do it solely because of God’s command. Next your point about women wearing a head covering yet wearing revealing clothes, I want to say hear that the reason for this most of the time is that they are probably going through transitioning period.
    I can speak for myself here especially, because I have taken up hijab/headscarf about two year ago. For me it was and still is hard to completely adapt to total covering. I am taking one step at a time, first it was a tiny wrap around my head and now I cover my neck, ears, and my arms. I don’t want to burden myself and this is not what God wants of us. So rather than actually drawing conclusions about such observations, one has to know reasons for it. Thank you =)

  • Muslim Girl

    One more thing I forgot is your point about the definition of modesty. I want to mention here is that yes Quran does say that “wear modest clothes” but Quran for us are guidelines, it tells us what to do but not how to do it. “How” part comes from the teaching of our prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him). His teachings are called “Sunah” in which He tells us that covering heads is a part of modesty. Another point is that you say that hijab makes us second class citizen, which is not true at all. Ask any muslim woman who covers properly, she will tell you the significance and the deep meaning of hijab. Hijab for most of us is a sign of empowerment and not the other way how a non-muslim would look at it. It brings us a step closer to God and for us that is strengthening.

  • Ricky

    Muslim Girl – Thank you for your thoughtful comments, clearly written out of your own personal experience. As I say in the post, “I would want to defend a woman’s right to wear the hijab if she genuinely and personally wants to do so because she believes it to be and expression of her faith”. Clearly for you that is the case and you find it empowering.

    However, I do think it is wishful thinking on your part when you say that “women wearing a head covering yet wearing revealing clothes,……the reason for this most of the time is that they are probably going through transitioning period”. That might apply to a small number of women but for the most part, it is wearing the headscarf because they are told to or feel under pressure to do so yet wanting to appear as fashionably dressed and attractive as any western woman at the same time. And I note that you offer no explanation for the total hypocrisy of women wearing the hijab with a loose fitting full-length coat that revealed no obvious body shape and no bare skin except the hands and face, being accompanied by men in tight jeans and designer shirts. That speaks loudly to me and to many others of turning women into second class citizens, however much you may choose to disagree.

  • It is some what ironic in a state that purports to be secular that when the people have freedom of expression they resort to age old cultural traditions. “Freedom” hasn’t liberalized people, they’ve just reverted to what they always know or have been socially conditioned to believe. And when will this change? When a stronger cultural influence is bought to bare…. that’s probably MTV, pop-culture and the internet and in my humble opinion we really don’t want to encourage girls to run around like Paris Hilton or dress up like Lady GaGa…
    .-= Sofie@Evening Shawls´s last blog ..Carla Bruni’s Camel Evening Shawl =-.

  • Ricky!

    I find your post,interesting! As I myself,is curious about ‘hijab’ and why Muslim Women wear them. In your post, I read the point of why,and I understand so.

    It is just their way of showing and living their ‘faith’ which is a great thing for a believer! As to others who, ‘ruin’ their way of showing, I guess you’re right..maybe just maybe they are having “transition”

    Well,I guess the fault of one,isn’t the fault of the other. I second what you said,

    “What matter most is not our outward dress or appearance but our inner motives and attitudes.”

    Anyways, I enjoyed reading your post as I’ve learn a lot! Thanks for your post!

  • What a post, brilliant topic and some excellent comments to – this is a very provocative post.

    So down to the point, personally I find it hard to understand the concept of covering oneself up to appease another. It seems that the reason for wearing the hijab is to stop men from lusting over a woman – would it not make for sense to make men wear blind folds, after all it seems the problem is with them.

    A lot of girls like to wear it as they feel it keeps them away from fashion and other similar western distractions. But for me it comes down to control and therefore is seen as a tool of repression.

  • What a fantastic post. Thank you! I especially like the last line in your article – “our inner motives and attitudes” – very true.

  • I’m really not sure how I feel about all this.

    I believe in women’s freedom and personal expression, but at the same time the thing which I find most irritating is that as a woman, If I wish to show my legs or whatever else, I should be able to do so without fear of rape, or punishment.

    This oddly reminds me of the Amish ways of women’s dress, to be unnoticed and not to arouse the desires of men, this responsibility falls on the woman.

    I think its interesting how there is such a focus on the burka yes little is mentioned about what Christianity dictates to women’s dress.