Friday, September 02, 2005

Islamic swimsuit

When Western secularists and progressives, experts on the Middle East and non-experts, see an image like this, they tend to view it just as they view the veil and other forms of female Islamic dress: as a sign of un-freedom. If only Muslim women would just get over their backward religiosity, and put on the mini-skirt!

Here’s a different story of “freedom” and Islamic swimsuits: This July a friend of mine was on the beach at a resort town. The beach property is owned by a Turkish bank established by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920’s, and is for the use of employees (working and retired) and their families. A woman wearing an Islamic swimsuit (in the style pictured here) showed up at the beach with her husband and children. Everything was fine until she tried to go into the water and swim. Then the beach security came out and prevented her, and made the woman and her family leave the premises entirely.

Although the current government is Islamist (led by PM Recep Erdogan, head of the Justice and Development party), many of Ataturk’s extreme secularist laws are still enforced--although not consistently. Female government employees and university students are routinely barred from wearing Islamic headscarves. At this summer’s graduation ceremony at Ataturk University in Erzerum, mothers of graduates wearing the headscarf were not allowed to attend unless they doffed their headcoverings. Such incidents and policies provide excellent ideological fodder for Islamists, who can plausibly argue that secularism is the antithesis of freedom and tolerance.

An article in the L.A. Times (August 21) also discusses the controversy over Islamic swimsuits in Turkey. It gives one take on what might be at stake:

Sociologists say the success of Islamic-style fashion is closely linked to the surge in upward mobility of religious Turks. "For this new Islamic bourgeoisie, clothes have increasingly become a vehicle for asserting status rather than piety," said Jenny B. White, an anthropologist at Boston University who has written extensively on Islam in Turkey.

This may be correct, but I believe it also may make a claim that anthropologist commentators make all too often: that Islamic dress for women is more a matter of symbol rather than piety. This too easily skirts over, and fails to take seriously, the fact that women who wear Islamic dress tend to say that their motivation is piety. In this I follow the lead of Saba Mahmood's very important book, Politics of Piety : The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. The book's focus is on Egypt, but I believe the arguments are more broadly applicable.

More swimsuits can be seen here.


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Thank you, wa-salaams

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