Turkish Veiling: Religious Tradition or form of Political Resistance?

Veiling in an Islamic context usually refers to the covering of the hair, neck, chest area, face, or some combination thereof. In Turkey it has both religious significance and symbolism as political resistance and fashion accessory. These layered meanings contribute to its complex and often contradictory nature in the Turkish public realm. Turkish women who choose to veil often have to negotiate the religious meaning of the veil with its public symbolism.

The Western-constructed dichotomy of the Orient and the Occident has contributed to creation of a Muslim Other, constructions of definitions for what qualifies as modern, and the importance of individual emancipation, which is relevant to liberal definitions of feminism. This has created misunderstanding and stigma around the practice of covering (Sandikci and Ger 18). In a country like Turkey, which is predominantly Muslim but is strictly secular politically, this has resulted in an apologetic modernity that seeks to control any political effect Islam might have by regulating religion completely through their government (Olson 163).

It would be a mistake to say that veiling has deviated from its original religious meaning in Turkey, as Sahar Amer suggests, the norm of veiling within Islam has always been there is no norm (14). However, “veiling is part of being visibly Muslim” (Gokariksel and Secor 179), which means choosing to wear a headscarf in a secular context where it is banned is inevitably political. There is no direct prescription of the veil in the Qur’an, therefore its meaning is highly interpretive. This is why it is problematic to generalize what it means for all followers of Islam, so I will focus on its multilayered meaning in Turkish context today.

Turkish nationalism was heavily influenced by European modernisms in an apologetic manner. Unlike other secular countries, Turkey’s developed as a “’laicism’ in which religious practice and institutions are regulated and administered by the ‘state’” (Olson 163). This means that the government doesn’t necessarily try to cleanse itself of all religion in the public sector, but instead attempts to corral its influence into a less political framework and regulate it completely (Olson 164). If, as Amer suggests, “unveiling Muslim women and uncovering their heads became the single clearest indicator of modernity in Muslim-majority societies…” (4), then it seems logical that a country like Turkey would ban veiling from its public sectors in an attempt to secularize themselves in a European-influenced style.

Much to secularists’ chagrin, veiling by middle and upper class women started to become popular in urban areas in the 1980’s (Sandikci and Ger 16). Emelie Olson argues that “the majority of Turkish women, especially peasant women, had never been veiled” (165), her point blatantly contradicts any argument a secularist might make about current veiling practice being about Turkish tradition (rather than religious tradition) in an attempt to water down the political statement. So if it is not based on historical tradition, what is the significance in the rise of veiling in Turkey? Many women claimed to consider veiling after observing the government’s harsh treatment of those who chose to cover in schools (Sandikci and Ger 22), this indicates a presence of a dichotomy between secularism and Islam in play. Their choice to cover directly challenged previously held stigmas of what it meant for a woman to veil, because “emphasis on individual interpretation and choice reflects their empowerment and nontraditional status: they are not (Orientalist) subjects who are forcefully covered” (Sandikci and Ger 26). This resistance through choosing to be submissive to the veil is an interesting mix of Islamic religious ideals with modernity.

Turkish women are also faced with the oppositional meaning of the veil as both a practice of female modesty and control of nefis (the ego or psyche) and its emergence as a fashion trend for upper-class Muslim women at the turn of the 21st century (Gokariksel and Secor 182). It is an example of women trying to maintain the religious meaning of the veil while enjoying its visual appeal through the navigation of religious ideals with fashionable ascetics. Their struggle to control nefis through the veil is complicated by its popularity as a consumerist accessory.

A young Turkish woman wearing a headscarf in public

Fashionable women who choose to cover often tie their headscarf in a way where the label is visible so that others will know the brand, which contradicts the veil as a practice that avoids being overly concerned about appearance and attention (Gokariksel and Secor 185). However the veil is still associated with female modesty, and when confronted with women who cover but wear more revealing clothing like mini-skirts, other veiled women argue they “should either take off the scarf or cover [their] legs” (Gokariksel and Secor 189). They are not arguing that all females should dress modestly, but rather that females should be dressing consistently, and not appropriating the headscarf into more skin-bearing outfits. This could mean that women are more conscious of the way veiling appears in the Turkish public eyes. The practice could be seen as contradicting the veil’s purpose of modesty and attracting less attention, and if it is understood that wearing the veil develops these ideals, what does it mean if veiling has shifted to a more self-conscious and publically visible symbol?

From the examples of fashion and political resistance it is clear how veiling represents one of the many frictions modernity and secularism create for certain Muslim practices. If Muslim practices continue to appear so visibly in the public’s eye what will this mean for the future of ideals like modesty? Will Muslim women continue to negotiate the tradition within the tensions of modernity and secularism, or will they interiorize and individualize the practice instead?


Amer, Sahar. What is Veiling? Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Gökarıksel, Banu and Anna Secor, “The Veil, Desire, and the Gaze: Turning the Inside Out,” Signs, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Autumn 2014), pp. 177-200.

Göl, Ayla. “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4 (2009), pp. 795-810.

Kyle. “Turkish Fashion Muslim Beautiful Women.” Free Travel Talk. Last modified March 3, 2010. http://www.freetraveltalks.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/TurkishfashionMuslimbeautifulwomen8.jpg

Mahmood, Saba. “Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject.” In Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, 177-210. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Olson, Emelie A., “Muslim Identity and Secularism in Contemporary Turkey: “The Headscarf Dispute” Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 58, No. 4, Self & Society in the Middle East (Oct., 1985), pp. 161-171

Sandikci, Özlem and Güliz Ger, “Veiling in Style: How Does a Stigmatized Practice Become Fashionable?” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 37, No. 1 (June 2010), pp. 15-36.

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