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The Veil Becomes a Fashion Statement

The politics swirling around the cultural attire associated with Islam may cover up an obvious rationale — it's currently fashionable in some circles.

A few weeks ago, Iraqi journalist Dalya Hassan created a stir with an essay in The Washington Post explaining why she had decided to don a veil. Before her marriage, Hassan went about her home country uncovered. She describes her prenuptial wardrobe as "short skirts and shirts with short sleeves," perfect for the sweltering heat of Baghdad summers.

But when her new husband told her she needed to wear a hijab, she reluctantly agreed. Though hot and uncomfortable, Hassan admits that, "after 2003, wearing the hijab became a means of protection." And, she points out, "male relatives forc[ing] women to wear the hijab is not new in Iraq." Saddam Hussein encouraged the practice in the waning days of his rule.

Hassan's story is not uncommon in the Muslim world, where more women — especially educated, middle-class women — now go veiled than a generation ago. From the simple headscarf to the body-covering niqab, this trend is apparent in countries as different as Indonesia and Iran. And while many reports have chalked up this change exclusively to growing religious sentiment or to male oppression, two Turkish researchers are now offering an intriguing alternative theory: Wearing the veil is an act of fashion rebellion.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Ozlem Sandikci and Guliz Ger propose that the veil is "a choice that runs against the grain of consumer socialization." The study, "Veiling in Style: How Does a Stigmatized Practice Become Fashionable," examines how a distinctive Turkish headscarf called tesettur morphed from a religious eccentricity to an almost ubiquitous fashion adopted mainly by well-heeled urban women. Once subversive among the ultra-secular middle class of Turkey, time has cemented it as a mainstream style.

Sandikci and Ger interviewed a group of Turkish women over several years, most of whom had come of age during the tumultuous religious and political changes of the late 20th century. For the most part, the women opted to wear a tesettur, a style "adopted primarily by young, urban, educated middle-class women who were formerly uncovered and whose mothers usually were uncovered."

But how did a style once associated with the "rural, poor and elderly" catch on with Turkey's urban elite? Sandikci and Ger point to Turkey's unique history and secular government. After the establishment of the republic in 1923, the nation instituted a strict separation of church and state to help along its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's ambitious plan of modernization. The new government looked on veiling as backwards and rural.

"Unveiling was encouraged and indicated one's commitment to the republican ideology and its secular regime," write Sandikci and Ger. It wasn't until the rise of an Islamic political movement that this attitude came under serious attack.

"The Islamic movement was gaining ground in the 1980s," explains Anna J. Secor, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has also studied veiling practices in Turkey. "Women who wanted to wear the headscarf were at the universities protesting."

As the government tightened restrictions on the veil — starting in 1999, women couldn't attend university if they wore a veil — many women began to regard covering as, paradoxically, a "deviant practice" and a means of rebelling against Turkey's rigid social and political structures. Within a few decades, tesettur had gone from "an unprecedented form of covering" to "fashionable, popular, and ordinary" style seen from Istanbul to Ankara. By 2007, a poll conducted by the Turkish research firm Konda found that nearly 52 percent of Turkish women sported the tesettur style of headscarf. (Another 18 percent wear a more elaborate veil).

Sandikci and Ger compare the veiling trend to the popularity in the West of one-time stigmatized fashions like blue jeans and tattoos. Although these styles once seemed the province of motorcycle gangs and ex-convicts, they eventually came to be adopted by other members of society. Similarly, the veil, formerly seen only on the most devout women, can now be seen on relatively secular Turkish women. In fact, that same Konda survey found that an astounding 35 percent of nonbelievers still opted to wear a headscarf.

The poll also found that nearly 30 percent of covered Turkish women said they covered for reasons other than religious belief, including tradition, habit, politics and family pressure.

"With the rise of political Islam, the trend toward adopting Islamic clothing became apparent," Sandikci and Ger report. Veiling in particular "did not simply indicate a heightened religious sensitivity."

What's more, the trend has managed to spread beyond Turkey's borders. "Turks living in European countries, especially Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria, appear to follow tesettur fashion," Sandikci and Ger say. "Turkish tesettur also seems to have an influence in neighboring countries such as Syria, as well as other countries such as Egypt and Jordan."

For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on

While more women are choosing to cover, resistance to the trend has been growing from the Middle East to Europe, where significant immigration from Muslim countries has made Islamic citizens and residents a growing and vocal minority. The French parliament is currently reviewing a proposed ban on full Islamic veils in public places.

More surprisingly, Egypt may prohibit its citizens from wearing the niqab after the country's top religious authority said that the garment had no connection to the Koran. And, even in Turkey, strong pressure continues to mount on the government to overturn the ban on veils in public places.

But Sandikci and Ger still expect to see more women wearing veils in Turkey and throughout the Muslim world. Textile companies that produce headscarves and veils, they explain, are "expanding in their reach and getting more sophisticated in their business practices." Savvy marketing means that the fashion of covering "will continue to grow both domestically and internationally."

As for whether veils may face a backlash as widespread fashion trends often do, Sandikci and Ger remain uncertain. "Covering is a highly political issue," they say. "It is very difficult to anticipate."

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