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July 27, 2012, Friday

Levi’s, mini-skirts and türbans

Turkish society at the grassroots level has changed rapidly in the past few decades in many ways. More change is expected as links with European countries and other nations such as China, Russia and Brazil grow stronger.

When I came to Turkey in the late 1970s, consumption patterns, dress and economy were very different from what they are today.

Since 2003, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came into office, Turkey’s economy has improved significantly. According to the Financial Times article “Consumer spending is on the rise in Turkey” (July 1), PepsiCo, the US snacks and beverages company, counts Turkey as a top 10 market. Its sales in Turkey grew by double digits last year. However, consumer consumption is not just growing in food and drink. Fashion is on the rise! You can drive around İstanbul from Büyükçekmece to Sarıyer on the European side and Ümraniye to as far as Kartaltepe on the Asian side and you’ll spot shopping malls in all shapes and sizes. There are dozens and dozens of shopping centers where retail stores are scrambling to keep merchandise in plentiful supply. While out and about the city, you can’t help but notice the abundance of fitness and beauty centers and the many popular culture and entertainment plazas.

For those of us who have been around a while, we have also seen that in the past decade Islamic-style clothing stores promoting Islamic fashion shows and Islamic fashion have become very popular among the more conservative Turks.

I recently came across some very revealing research by Özlem Sandıkçı and Güliz Ger at Bilkent University. In their research article “Fundamental Fashions: The Cultural Politics of the Turban and the Levi’s,” Sandıkçı and Ger point out that a type of fusion has developed more recently. For background purposes, let me summarize how Sandıkçı and Ger describe the period: When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and the following years afterwards a change of values occurred: On the one side there was the “republican” model (= modern, urban, secular, European-oriented) and on the other the “Islamic” (= traditional, rural, religious, Ottoman-oriented) model. Sandıkçı and Ger suggest that a fusion between the two and their values have resulted in the emergence of fashion and entertainment consciousness in what they call the “fundamentalist Islamic subculture.”

During my early years in Turkey wearing Levi’s, enjoying books, magazines, movies, television and shopping for pleasure were considered Western influence. Now services are specifically aimed at who Sandıkçı and Ger calls the “Islamic” group. From what I have observed over the years living here -- although the facts about Turkey in any country file have always stated that “Turkey is predominantly Muslim and a secular government” -- nowadays, this appears true not just in fact but in practice as more individuals live out their Muslim faith.

It has been fascinating to observe the social change occurring in İstanbul and across the country in recent years. You will see more than ever middle-class türbaned women. The headscarf in Turkey, as it is worn in modern times, is referred to as a “türban.” Sandıkçı and Ger report the following: “The newly emergent urban, middle-class türbaned women do not simply differentiate themselves from the Westernized, secular Turkish women; they equally distance themselves from the traditional Islamic women who wear a headscarf out of habit in rural areas and small towns and from the newly rich Islamists.” According to Sandıkçı and Ger, they reject both the image of covering as a sign of cultural backwardness and as a sign of extravagance and flaunting. You can read the full report at

As a retailer who operates a bookstore, I am observing the adaptation of retailers and service providers who are adjusting to the trends. A simple illustration of the consumption fusion taking place is that of Islamic fashion, which consists of the latest Western fashion styles mixed with Islamic dress norms. Adjustments are being made to offer hotel resorts, fitness and beauty centers, and television channels and radio stations that appeal to this audience whose preference is different from that of the secular Turk. Interestingly, according to a paper titled “Religiosity and Social Meaning in Wearing Islamic Dress,” presented at a cross-cultural conference in 1999 by Terrence H. Witowski, the presenter stated that the Turkish republican ideology similarly perceives the türbaned women as a threat to modernity and a Western lifestyle. Since just over a decade has passed it would be valuable to review that statement again.

It would be interesting to know what Today’s Zaman readers think on this point and what your idea of modernity is. Certainly, we would all agree that in Turkey consumerism, capitalism and globalization have increased.

This brings me to the question that I am asked every time I have a visitor planning to come to Turkey. The common question is: What do I wear when I am in Turkey? My answer is anything goes! It just depends on where you are going and with whom.

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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