Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Fashion (or Politics?) of Turkish Trench Coats and Headscarves

One of our young hosts for our village homestay
 near Beysehir, Turkey - 2012

I never thought that I would ever say this...but...I do enjoy photographing people! Particularly rewarding are the candid shots that are quickly captured, without much planning and without much fuss. I also find that upon returning from a trip, it's the people shots that I organize first. More so than the photographs of places and objects, it's the photographs of people that bring back memories of the moment in deeper detail, perhaps because of the indelible way in which they are grounded in time. A building or landscape at sunrise might look very much the same from one day to the next, whereas the expression on a person's face, taken at the same time every day, most likely will not.

Shopping Day
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

The streets of Istanbul are full of history and teeming with people. It's impossible to resist the urge to photograph the women, often walking arm in arm, one in a headscarf and long skirt, the other bare-headed and wearing form fitting jeans. On one walk along the Bosphorus, where fishermen like to stake out their ground for the afternoon, we came across a bride and groom, and their photographer. A fisherman very politely gave up his spot so the wedding photographer could position the bride and groom against the backdrop of sea and sky before digitally memorializing their special day.

Wedding Photos on the Banks of the Bosphorus
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

One of the interesting things about the scene was the contrast in dress between the wedding photographer and the bride. The young bride was in a traditional white wedding gown (traditional to people of European heritage...), while the young professional photographer was in traditional headscarf (traditional to Turkey...).

When we left Istanbul and headed towards central Turkey - to Cappadocia and Konya - we began to see more and more women in headscarves...and...trenchcoats! In my own light cotton traveling garb, the 90+ degree heat was oppressive, so I could only wonder how it was that they were managing so well.

Headscarves and Trenchcoats at the Mevlana Museum (Shrine of Rumi)
Konya, Turkey - 2012
Smartly dressed women paying their respects at the Mevlana Museum (Shrine of Rumi)
Konya, Turkey - 2012

It was obvious to me that the women took pride in their appearance. Scarves were chosen to compliment their trench coats. I could see that there was an art to the way in which their scarves were wrapped, with a specific number of pins, their patterns displayed just so.

The very hospitable family we stayed with in a village near Beysehir included the patriarch and matriarch, their two sons and their wives, and the two couples' children - one had a daughter and the other a son. I remember thinking that the young wives were modestly, but also quite confidently and stylishly, dressed in colorful headscarves and long skirts.

Young women hosts of our village homestay, with five year old Suleyman
 near Beysehir, Turkey - 2012

It was only much later  in our trip that I discovered what a political lightning rod this single item of clothing - a simple headscarf - actually was.  These are just three of the dramatically headlined articles that I found from BBC News: Turkey: Battle of the headscarf (22 July 2002), Headscarf issue challenges Turkey (7 November 2006), and Is Turkey's secular system in danger? (24 October 2012), that highlight the symbolic role that headscarves play in Turkey's political debate.

To put things in context, Turkey has been a secular state since the early 1920's, the legacy of the much loved leader, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Headscarves are banned for women who hold public positions or those who are engaged in working or studying on public premises. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, more women started wearing headscarves to school and universities. Those interviewed in the BBC articles saw it as a personal choice - a reflection of who they were - and being expelled from universities or banned from appearing in court because they refused to remove their headscarves was a form of discrimination.

The whole controversy would probably not have as much steam if the Turkish government was not currently led (for the past decade) by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prime Minister Erdogan has already been accused of having an Islamist agenda, and because Turkey is so overwhelmingly Muslim, the fear is that  relaxing the ban on headscarves will just open the door to Islam in public life.

One of our other young hosts for our village homestay
 near Beysehir, Turkey - 2012

As a outsider, I don't feel it is my place to agree or disagree with either side in this debate. However, I can't help hoping that headscarves and trenchcoats may one day lose their political symbolism and gain more of a cultural one. That's the way I believe it is in the Indian subcontinent where saris are worn - by choice - throughout Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, by Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians alike.  And I can only hope that at some point, something as superficial as what a Turkish woman chooses to wear will be seen only as a personal choice....a choice that is made freely, with confidence and pride, and in the spirit of personal expression, rather than religious restriction.

On the Bosphorus
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012
photo by Roger Winter

Many of the images included in my posts are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at http://DigitalYak.etsy.com/. Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!

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