The veil is the most visible symbol of Islam and as such has been subject to much debate. In the following post, I attempt to move away from the problematic discourse of “veiling controversies”― which suggest a good and a bad, or a right and a wrong― and instead explore the nuances of veiling practice and performance.
Discussion around the topic of veiling has historically been dichotomous; the practice is depicted as either oppressive or liberating, religious or fashionable, modern or backwards. In the context of contemporary Turkey, this polarity is often articulated in terms of “Turkish ‘nationalism’ versus Muslim identity [or] secularism (laicism) versus an ‘Islamic society’” (Olson 1985, 166). The creation of these poles ignores the ways in which religious, aesthetic, and national identity interact and thus positions the veil as a “symbolic object rather than part of a woman’s lived subjectivity” (Gökariksel and Secor 2014, 180). These overlapping and intersecting identities inform both the public and private self as a veiled woman.
The intersectionality of religious and aesthetic identities is especially interesting with the rise of fashionable Islamic dress and the subsequent commodification of headscarves. There has been a relatively recent shift from drab and uniform religious headwear to more personalized and stylized pieces (Sandikci and Ger 2014). Many women identify their primary reason for adopting a covered lifestyle as religious (Ünal 2012). However, the increasing presence of covered fashion models and trending fabrics and prints would suggest that the motivation is not entirely modesty. The implied demand of the contemporary veiled woman is that she be both “modest and beautiful” as “the aesthetic of veiling fashion is also an ethic” (Gökariksel and Secor 2014, 189). The headscarf then appears as a public manifestation of personal morality as well as personal style. Style and morality, in the context of contemporary fashionable veils, work in conjunction with one another rather than in opposition.
In part due to the commodification and aestheticization of the veil, a veiled woman might amass a collection of various scarves in different fabrics and prints and with different sentimental significance. This collection serves as a representation of the self, taking on an individuality rather than existing solely as a product (Ünal 2012). The veil is the centerpiece of any given outfit and as such is integral to expressing and projecting the private self in public spaces. Different headscarves may have been received as gifts, worn to special events, or passed down through friend groups or families. In this way, the a collection of headscarves comes to serve as a visual delineation of a particular woman’s history or her “network of social relationships” (Ünal 2012, 318). This understanding goes a long way towards moving away from the idea of headscarves as a static symbol and positioning them instead as dynamic in their representation.
The recent resurgence of veiling in Turkey among young and educated women has created a “new position” that subverts and challenges the Western idea― adopted by Turkish national modernity― of veiling as backwards and old-fashioned (Sandikci and Ger 2014, 19). This is largely because veiling is a practice “laden with stigmatization” and often perceived as threatening in the West (Sandikci and Ger 2014, 16). Here, religious and aesthetic identities enter into the political sphere. The veil is the most obvious sartorial signifier of Islam and as such, some women describe the aestheticization of veiling as a form of “visual da’wah” or invitation (Ünal 2012, 311). The beautiful scarf, pinned perfectly and paired with just the right outfit, is thought to be capable of representing Islam as friendly, approachable, and pleasing. This is deemed especially important in spaces that may be hostile towards the practice of veiling or toward Islam as a whole (Ünal 2012). The existence of the veil as a very public symbol makes part of its function performative, even if silent.
In the context of contemporary Turkey, the veil is often read as an overt threat to secularity. Turkish secularity, modeled after French laicism, attempts to create a public space completely devoid of religion. The “threat” of the veil underscores the belief that Islam is incompatible with modernization. Additionally, it paints the modern woman as entirely different from the veiled woman. “That this two value model is an oversimplification is immediately obvious,” argues Emilie Olson, “Muslim identity- or at least the Islamic cultural heritage- is an inseparable part of Turkish nationalism” (Olson 1985, 166). Though this may be an obviously reductive point of view to Olson, Turkish laws regulating public dress and appearance would suggest that this “ideological conflict” carries real political weight (Olson 1985, 166).
Mary Lou O’Neil posits that dress codes serve to “undermine the relationship thought to exist between personal belief and appearance” and in doing so attempt to maintain power and create the “model public citizen” (O’Neil 2010, 66). In contemporary Turkey, the “model public citizen” is a “modern” one, which is here synonymous with Western. Religion, particularly Islam, is seen as being entirely at odds with Turkey’s modernizing and Westernizing agenda. It follows that “the real issue is not clothing, but thought” (O’Neil 2010, 77). The regulations serve to reinforce and reproduce existing dichotomies and thus invalidate intersectionalities. Turkish dress codes aimed towards Westernization also seek to push citizens towards one side of this particular dichotomy― toward Turkish nationalism rather than Islam. The aesthetic of veiling does not only connote a religious morality in this situation, but a national one, reflecting the devotion (or lack thereof) of the wearer to the state. For many Muslim Turkish women, however, national and religious identities are not contradictory, instead they exist together and inform one another.
Veiling as a practice and as a performance has both private and public resonances. Though a woman’s choice to cover might be rooted in faith, her religious identity will then inevitably interact with consumer culture, specific demands of morality and modesty, her significance in certain spaces, her personal style or story, and her nationality, Turkish or otherwise. Though the veiled subject might be intimately aware of these intersectionalities, the particular visibility and performativity of the veil imposes on her certain other, and perhaps less nuanced, identities as a function of the state, the market, or the church.
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SANDIKCI, ÖZLEM, and GÜLIZ GER. 2014. “Veiling in Style: How Does a Stigmatized Practice Become Fashionable?.” Journal Of Consumer Research S207-S228. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 2, 2015).
Ünal, R. Arzu, and Annelie Moors. 2012. “formats, fabrics, and fashions: muslim headscarves revisited.” Material Religion 8, no. 3: 308-329. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed November 2, 2015).