I would like to start this paper, in which I will try to investigate the politicization of a religious symbol (i.e. the turban), firstly by situating myself in the discourse. As a 20 year old woman (born and raised in Turkey) who does not wear the turban, whenever I see a woman wearing one the first thought that comes into my mind is about her political affiliations; that she presumably supports a right-wing, conservative party, most probably AKP (Justice and Development Party) which has been in power since 2002. A reaction that would have been different, for instance, after seeing a person wearing a cross which would firstly symbolize religious devotion and not a specific political stance.
This is not merely my personal opinion per se, as the ways we choose to fashion ourselves are more than a matter of stylistic choice, but social and political markers as well (Breu and Marchese 2000, 25). Therefore I would like to investigate how this process came to be and how it interferes with the complex dynamics of religion, popular culture and politics. In doing so, I will try and approach the topic with Chris Klassen’s ‘religion and popular culture in dialogue’ classification in mind (2014, 25). She suggests that the dialogue often is a conflict and not a consensus, which is certainly true in the case of the turban issue.
At the end of the 19th century, approximately twenty years before the establishment of the Turkish Republic, women in the Ottoman Empire wore a piece of clothing that covered the whole body, called the “çarşaf,” (meaning “sheet” in Turkish and Arabic). It must be noted that even in those times, women’s attire was starting to be regarded as a determinant of how modern the nation was and Westernization was lurking in the hidden corners of the Empire. Women who came from more privileged backgrounds and who were able to travel and get educated more so than the average citizen were already changing the style in which they fashioned themselves; although a full un-veiling would still have been most unusual.
It was in these circumstances that the Turkish Republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. What followed was a period of education, urbanization and development; regarded now either as; “Kemalist secular revolution,” “the Kemalist project” or the “Kemalist doctrine.” (Peres 2012, 34-36). As one can see from the different denominations given to an era of roughly twenty years; there was not, and still is not, a consensus to whether this era of modernization, industrialization and Westernization was the right choice of action for the people who were living with very Eastern, religious and conservative Ottoman traditions. One of the most radical changes that came with the establishment of the republic was the idea of the ‘modern’ way of clothing; both men and women were required to dress in Western fashions. This marked the beginning of the insidious war that established towards the religious attire of women; as for the first time in Turkish political history, what they were wearing was not merely a religious expression but a sign of basic “provinciality” in the face of Western perfection which Atatürk so desperately wanted to acquire (Gurbuz 2009, 234).
After the radical indoctrination of Atatürk’s idea of the “modern state,” Turkish society began to feel that their religious identities were being threatened and what followed was the emergence of multiple political parties that appealed to religious sentiments, soon overthrowing the founder party CHP (Republican People’s Party). However, the public divide among the conservative Islamists and secular Kemalists was perhaps never more pronounced than in this era in the late 50s and early 60s. This time period (and later the 70s) also brought with it a massive industrialization and urbanization and rural migrants started to come to the big cities; the women bringing with them the traditional ‘headscarf,’ and the covering of the head (which was deemed “unmodern” and shunned especially in urban areas) started being more visible once again.
However the emergence of right-wing conservative parties could not assure a democratic representation of all members of the public, because whenever the Kemalist progressive/secular identity was felt to be threatened, the military intervened; resulting in three major coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 (Gurbuz 2012, 235). The latter was the most dramatic one regarding our topic, as wearing the headscarf (or the turban, as it was now being called) in public areas such as universities and government institutions was now officially banned. (Peres 2012, 45). This action marks the second time in which covering the head gained incredible symbolic value, for it now (more than ever) represented a certain group of women who were the victims of this radical symbolization. Playing on this notion of victimhood and “real Islamic rights and values,” AKP (the most conservative, Islamist and steadily radicalized party Turkey has ever seen in its history) came to power in 2002.
As I am writing this now in 2015, women who wear the turban are allowed to participate and work in the public sphere and they have gained unprecedented rights. That being said, it must also be noted that the divide between certain groups in Turkey (the left and the right, for lack of a better conceptualization) is deeper and causing more bloodshed than ever.
- Popular Culture and the Public Sphere
After this brief chronological overview of how turban’s symbolic significance came to be, I would like to locate the discussion in popular culture. In his book, Moments of Freedom, Johannes Fabian (1998) dissects the term ‘popular culture’ and deems it a timeless entity that has the ability to show how institutions can impact culture; suggesting that it cannot be separated from the contemporary relations of power (32-33). Similarly, Chris Klassen often utilizes the Neo-Marxist approach which relies on the concept of hegemony, that is, “taking the interest of those in power and making them seem universal” (2014, 20).
However, we must make another important note before we delve into investigating how the issue of turban, now a component of popular culture, was more or less shaped by the hegemonic attitudes of the state. When one is talking about turban’s influence on popular culture, one is really talking about its existence in the public sphere. From the beginning of the symbolization of the çarşaf (the headscarf and later on the turban), what gave the issue enough momentum to affect Turkey’s political timeline was this discussion of whether women who wore the turban could be active participants of social, economic and educational life without being excluded from society, especially after they were banned for so long to do so.
Adopting both Fabian (1998) and Klassen’s (2014) approaches helps us view the relationship between popular culture and the public sphere in a different way; we begin to see that both concepts are largely influenced by the institutions that are in power and in turn fashion the collective consciousness. Nothing can become an element of popular culture unless it penetrates the fragile boundaries of the public sphere; as is evident in the case of the turban. What is or is not allowed in that public sphere is, again, decided by the state itself. By laws, regulations and silent but powerful attitudes.
For years, whenever the Kemalist seculars gained power this meant that the religious, traditional Turkish women would be looked down upon as a decadent symbol of the past. Allowing them to wear the headscarf or turban in environments such as universities, government institutions and the parliament (i.e. giving them visibility in the public sphere) would be a compromise to the reformist values. Knowing this, is what made the Islamist and conservative parties gain power; they merely promised visibility to the masses, embedding the idea of turban as an element of popular culture (Peres 2012, 43-44). Here we can see, again, the intricate nature of the relationship between popular culture and public spheres.
It is also possible to view the Turkish public sphere as an “imagined and institutionalized” place for enforcing the secular and progressive way of life during the Turkish modernization process. As the female body is used as an engendered enforcer of modernity, the key components of popular culture (such as performances, styles and dress codes) become actors in the debate of public participation and visibility (Göle 2000, 175-177). Therefore we can conclude that the turban issue is really a problem of the public sphere that has ingrained itself in the popular culture.
- Religion and Popular Culture in Dialogue
Coming back, as I promised, to Klassen’s category of ‘religion and popular culture in dialogue’ (2014, 25), I would like to further investigate how the turban mediates the relationship between religion and popular culture (should we accept it as a mediator). Klassen explores this category through the lens of conflicts and ethical questions that are being raised by the exchange between religion and popular culture. Others such as Meyer (2006, 436-439) and Hjarvard (2008, 20-24) on the other hand would go as far as to say that whenever religion is mediated through popular culture, its inherent interpretations change. I believe that the truth lies in between these approaches; the inherent nature of a religion may be too grounded in historical and social facts to completely change by processes of mediation, but this is not to say that the effect mediatization does not have an effect whatsoever.
The turban, for example, started to be affiliated with political symbolism and replacing the traditional headscarf after the end of the 1970s, specifically after the coup in 1980 (Breu and Marchese 2000, 35). After this demarcation, the traditional headscarf has come to symbolize the rural, non-threatening Anatolian women everyone often associates with their grandmothers, it was almost a symbol of purity and naiveté. The turban, on the other hand, when it first came into existence, deeply unsettled and threatened the secular and Kemalist elite, because to them it was a political sign that signified a group of people that wanted to turn Turkey into an Islamist state like Iran had recently become (Peres 2012, 40; Gurbuz 2009, 236-237). I am giving this elaborate example because of two reasons; firstly to argue that these different associations were, again, created by the hegemonic doctrines of the (military) state that controlled all organizations of mass media and publications, or in other words created what was acceptable in popular culture and in the public sphere.
Furthermore, I want to draw attention to the fact that this separation in definitions created a differentiation between “good Muslim girls,” who (to the secular elite) did not have ulterior motives to cover their heads and “bad Muslim girls” who were trying to change Turkey’s modern and progressive face with their “foul” Islamist agenda (Gurbuz 2009, 234). Here we can clearly see how popular culture, shaped mostly by what the state desires, changes what constitutes as good or bad Muslims. It is not the teachings of the Quran that determines who fulfills the duties of the religion appropriately anymore, but merely a piece of cloth that women choose to wear or not to wear.
- Mediatization, Religion and the Turban
Although we have been talking about Turkey specifically, the image of a woman who is wearing the veil or the turban as the epitome of subordination and oppression has always been popular throughout history; notably in Western societies (Soares and Osella 2009, 51-53). Contrary to what this depiction pronounces, however, with the development and expansion of the media and the market, it would not be wrong to assume that Islam is gaining new visibilities. Göle asserts, for instance, that “Islam is carving out new public spaces of its own,” by adopting new styles of music, rituals and practices. (2002, 173). Samy Alim’s article further proves this point, as he argues that Muslim youth are adopting new forms of media (in this case, hip-hop) to “narrate the marginalized experiences of a ‘nation’” (2006, 57).
The reason why Islam has become more visible in popular culture (and by extension in the public sphere) is because the adoption of new media technologies and the rapid change in the process of mediation has opened up new spaces for it. This is not to say that mediation is strictly dependent on new technologies, however. Brigit Meyer (2006), for example, claims that one of the central necessities of religious systems has always been the ability to mediate between the unseen spaces (such as the promise of heaven and hell), the incorporeal existence of God and the material world. They did so by using narratives, visual depictions and social gatherings, and not necessarily by technological advancements. (435-436). Although it would be unwise to overlook how the new agents of media have overtaken some of the institutionalized religion’s roles of guidance and community (Hjarvard 2008, 24), it is also plausible to assert that the process of mediation does not strictly depend on televisions, computers and smart phones and even the smallest fresco in a church, for example, can be a mediator that transmits religious messages to the masses.
If the mediatization process is two-fold, that is; new agents of media taking over some of the roles that religions traditionally have on the one hand and a mediation process that is not necessarily dependent on them on the other, I would like to suggest considering the turban as non-technologic mediator between religion, popular culture and politics. The complex history of the turban and the literature of victimization are topics that dominate popular culture and they use agents of media such as commercials, television programs and publications in order to do so. Because the images and stories that circulate the media sphere are so powerful, the turban declares a certain independence from them and gains the ability to become a mediator on its own, especially in the public sphere. Merely seeing a woman wear it is enough to unconsciously recall one’s associations with the issue.
For example, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) released an advertisement in April 2015 for the upcoming elections called “AKP Abolished the turban ban!” (YouTube). The advertisement features a young woman, who is wearing the turban and crying while recalling the story of how she could not get into university because of her turban. The advertisement was mostly criticized (besides the logic and inconsistency errors), because the reproduction of the victimization discourse in order to gain votes was considered to be coercive. Another example comes from one of the most popular channels in Turkey; Samanyolu TV, which constantly produces shows in which the women who are wearing the turban (as the embodiment of purity and goodness) are often tortured or excluded by the women who are not wearing it as if they are purely corrupt and evil. The latest example of which is the ridiculously named, “The Things the Unveiled Sister-in-Law Does to the Bride Who Wears the Turban.”
It is not uncommon to associate the symbolization of the turban with the rise of the conservative, right-wing parties and specifically AKP. Although they certainly brought an element of radicalization and exploitation to certain historical anecdotes (and continue to do so), one of the most important conclusions that I hope to bring to light with this paper is that there really are two major events that started this process. The first one is the Kemalist project which indoctrinated modernization and Westernization as the only options for re-building a country out of the Ottoman ashes. The reflection of this idea on the religious attire of women marked the beginning of what we call the turban problem today. The second instance was the headscarf ban legislated by the military government of the 80s, which gave the issue an unprecedented momentum and inadvertently allowed the right-wing parties to gain recognition in the political stage.
As the timeline progressed, the issue of turban became even more layered; what was now beginning to become a very pronounced debate was that of public visibility and public sphere. The powerful sanctions, reactions and hegemonic impositions of the state almost pre-determined that this topic would be a significant one in people’s minds for years to come. This, in turn, is what made the turban an incredibly heavy and powerful component of popular culture that is also inseparable from the topic of public sphere.
At this point one might ask; how? How did a piece of cloth that symbolized religiosity could have come to mean so many different things to so many different people in current day Turkey? I believe the answer lies in the process of mediatization. As certain political powers realized that using the turban issue would give them countless supporters, they made it a part of their political agenda and created a discourse that relies on recounting the stories of how women were victimized in these processes. They used every media organization in their reach in order to circulate and reproduce these messages and stories. I believe that this process of mediatization is what gave simply wearing the turban the power to convey symbolic messages to the masses.
As the debates became more and more public, so did the divide in society between groups that held more traditional and religious approaches and the ones who did not. Furthermore, the conversation changed as people started to claim that although women who covered their head identified as religious, that they were not following the rightful way of lslam and they were not real Muslims because the turban was being considered as a political symbol. It is interesting to see that what dominates the “good vs. bad Muslims” debate is not how well a person follows the actual teachings of the Quran, but how they chose to fashion themselves. This exemplifies the way how certain components of popular culture and the associations attached to them change the way people assign religious authenticity and the fundamental way they view religion itself.
I hope this brief investigation was able to demonstrate the intricate relationship between religion, popular culture and politics and how the turban has become a mediator among those elements in Turkey.
Out of everything that I have written so far, this article may be the one that is closest to me. I wrote it when I was in the Netherlands for Erasmus, and I was facing a completely different and much harder education system than I had known at home in Istanbul. The amount of reading we had to do and the assignments we had to complete, compared to my home university, was amazing. I basically did nothing but study and completed this article when I came back to Istanbul for Christmas break.
Writing something this personal and this difficult was challenging to say the least. I first had to alienate myself from the subject so I could describe it to others who did not know anything about the intricate workings of Turkish political history and society. I always also under a lot of pressure to complete the assignment in a way that was completely unfamiliar to me. It was written for an anthropology class called “Religion, Media and Popular Culture” and their approach (both the way they defined things and their technical rules) was not what I was accustomed to. Nevertheless, this grueling process revealed to me how rewarding it is to actually concentrate deeply on a spesific subject. And although I am proud of my final work, what I even enjoyed more was my time spent during the research and construction of the paper.
The topic is a controversial one and I tried to stay as unbiased as possible. I hope this article can be enjoyable for all.
Written for my “Religion, Media and Popular Culture” class at Utrecht University, Fall 2015.
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Photograph by: Ahmed Carter