In Turkey, Fashionable Devotion

Muslim Chic

From a distance, the scene appears quintessentially Islamic: A young religious woman in central Istanbul stands covered with a head scarf and modest, full-length drape.

A closer look reveals some apparent contradictions: The silk scarf echoes hot European designs; the drape is actually a Harley-Davidson-style, black-leather coat with zippers, custom-made to extend from neck to ankles.

Women in Turkey are proving that wearing the hijab - the Islamic head scarf and full-length outer coat, intended, ironically, to shield female beauty - does not mean rejecting fashion.

And so, in an Islamic designer's showroom for the fall season hangs a long coat in tan, suede spandex, with faux leopard fur accenting the collar and sleeves.

Long politically secular, Turkey has never looked quite like other predominantly Muslim countries. Its women often cover up with loose clothing rather than flowing black robes. Like their counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia they often wear colorful scarves.

But even for here, the "covered fashion" scene has exploded as Islamic fundamentalism rises and more urban women are accepting the Koran's mandate to hide their forms in public.

Fabrics and colors are inspired by the latest on Parisian runways, and wrapping the head scarf has become an art form.

More than 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, but the state is staunchly secular, and there is continual tension between the more conservative and the more "modern" citizens.

Some Turks, especially in the cities, where less than half of the women cover, accuse women who adopt this new style of having political motives. University students, who are in the vanguard of the current fashion, have been banned since March from attending classes if they wear any head covering at all.

Istanbul University students in particular are at the forefront of this conflict. They are recognizable by the way they wrap their silk head scarves, the ends fanned flat across the chest and pinned to the shoulders.

The most chic style this year is crossing the ends below the chin then knotting them at the back of the neck to give the head a sleek outline.

Aynur Demirel, a student here, says that women pick up this sophisticated style when they move to the cities.

"I don't dress like this when I go home to my village," she says. Village women still wear the cotton scarves knotted under their chins, and will often let the hair above their foreheads show.

The new urban women will not let a single hair escape the scarf in public, though their motivation is fashion, not modesty. They wear tight caps underneath the main scarf to secure their hair, and pin the scarf to keep it snug.

They now favor silk over cotton, and the scarves' prints are more Anne Klein than Ottoman. In the past year, gold painted into the designs has become popular, and as in Europe, animal prints and silk-velvet "burn-out" designs are hot.

One woman, who identified herself as Aliye, was shopping for a scarf when she discovered one at half price. When she asked why, the salesman replied, "Last year's model."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Afghanistan's hard-line Afghan Taliban leaders strictly enforce the wearing of the heavy burqa covering. Afghan women must peer through a mesh of material.

A broader trend?

But Islamic fashions in other some other countries are changing.

Iran, known since the revolution for its strict government-imposed dress code, has relaxed somewhat since President Khatami came to power. Some women in Tehran are wearing colored scarves farther back on the head, revealing formerly forbidden exposed hair.

And Turkey's top export market for its fancy scarves is conservative Saudi Arabia, where "they are used almost exclusively for head covering," according to ITKIB, Turkey's textile exporters union.

In 1982, eight brothers founded Tekbir, a clothing company exclusively for covered women. At that time few women in Istanbul covered and fashions were limited.

Since then, more Turks have chosen a devout religious path - as one indication, a quarter of Istanbul's more than 2,000 mosques have been constructed in the past decade - and demand for the hijab has mushroomed.

Tekbir reports it is moving 200,000 scarves a year and almost as many covers, representing $10 million in business.

Its fashion shows are closely watched for the new styles, and Mustafa Karaduman, Tekbir's president, says one aim of the shows is to inspire competitors.

"We're eager to motivate other manufacturers to produce covered styles," he says. "This is more than a business, it's a mission. "

Concepts like an Islamic "mission" make many Turks nervous. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the secular republic 75 years ago on principles of modernization and separating religion from public life. For a decade, until 1936, a law forbade wearing religious clothing in all state buildings and schools.

The current ban on head scarves in schools revives a debate that has arisen periodically, especially in the past 30 years.

About half of the 500 female medical students at Istanbul University who cover have decided to take off the scarf to attend class. Others have tried to wear caps, knit hats, or wigs - sometimes even wigs over scarves - but now these too are forbidden.

Some Turks - including those in government - say women who dress in the latest fashion are supporters of "political Islam" and are aligned with fundamentalist parties.

Political overtones

"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 part of political, economic, and social decisions."

One of Istanbul's muftis, religious officials who interpret Islamic code for the community, refutes the idea that wearing the latest fashions may defeat the purpose of women covering in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

"The Koran doesn't say anything about what to use to cover, just anything that covers the figure," he says. "The woman can use anything she's comfortable in, whether that is cotton, paper, or leaves from a tree."

Or, presumably, the latest from Paris.

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