Monday, June 05, 2006

Why are customers flocking to Islamic tailors in 'militantly secular' Turkey?

Customers flock to Allah's Tailor in Turkey's fashion battleground In a militantly secular country, clothing is at the centre of friction over westernisation

Ian Traynor in Istanbul
June 2, 2006
The Guardian

For the pious yet stylish young Muslim woman this season it's stone or soft brown. Ankle-length skirt or coat closed to the neck, hat and scarf betraying not a wisp of hair, sleeves to the wrist, all in rippling silk, satin or velvet.

At God is Great Clothing, an emporium in central Istanbul scaling the heights of Islamic chic, Mustafa Karaduman cannot shift his creations fast enough. A pioneer in the design and manufacture of attractive clothing made in strict conformity with what he says is laid down in the Qur'an, Mr Karaduman has been dubbed Allah's Tailor or The Prophet's Couturier.

"We're working in the right way in line with Allah's orders," he says at his store emblazoned with the slogan: All Belongings are Allah's.

The conservative, religious middle classes of Istanbul are flocking to Mr Karaduman's outlets. He is planning to expand from 22 to 100 shops, and from Malaysia to Belgium, Egypt to Germany, demand is soaring for the garments designed and made by Mr Karaduman and his six brothers.

But the success of Islamic fashion has many detractors in a liberal city like Istanbul and among an elite reared on militant secularism as the foundation of the Turkish republic.

Womenswear is a battleground in Turkey's fraught westernisation drive, with the issue of the Muslim headscarf convulsing the country. The governing Justice and Development party, a group of religious conservatives with roots in political Islam, would dearly love to overturn the secularist ban on the headscarf in schools, universities and for civil servants and in all public offices.

But more than three years into his rule, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has failed to do so, alienating his voters and power base. "Allah's orders to Muhammad were tell your daughters and wives to cover their bodies up if they go out," said Mr Karaduman.
"The orders are no hair should be seen from the outside, only the face and the hands up to the wrist can be visible. Skirts should reach to the ankles. Clothing must not be transparent and no body lines should be visible. The framework is clearly defined by God in the Book."

The conflict over women's dress in Istanbul takes curious turns. On civil rights grounds, miniskirted students turn out to protest in support of their headscarved friends, some of whom opt to go abroad to study. Others adopt the headscarf less out of religious conviction than as an act of teenage rebellion. Yet others pin back and cover their hair and then don a wig to get the coveted university place without compromising their beliefs.

Like everywhere else, fashion is made by young people on the street - and watched, picked up, manufactured and marketed by the industry. According to Mr Karaduman, women are creating a new fashion by adapting the banned headscarf to try to satisfy their religious obligations.

One product he sells, but refuses to manufacture himself, is Islamic swimwear. The ground floor of his store includes shelves laden with brightly coloured tracksuit-style swimming costumes for the growing number of Muslim women eager to head for the stunning resorts of the Aegean but previously kept out of the water by strictures on modesty.

The trousers and top, cap and hood leave only the hands, feet, and face uncovered. Mr Karaduman worries, however, that bits of the costume could ride up while swimming to reveal patches of female flesh. "I'm afraid I'd be a sinner if we made them."

Cemal Colgecen has no such qualms. Around the corner from the Karaduman store, Mr Colgecen's Chastity Swimwear is also doing a roaring trade as one of several companies exploiting a growing market to serve the upwardly mobile, increasingly monied, but culturally conservative Turkish middle class.

His summer 2006 collection features head-to-toe suits in pinks, oranges and turquoise with names such as Hawaii, Miami, and Flower. "A lot of people don't know you can get swimwear like this," he says.
"But through advertising, we're selling more and more. It used to be that Islamic women had no options, few places to go to swim. Now it's changing."

Under the Erdogan government, and much to the chagrin of the fiercely anti-religious establishment, the options available to holiday-seeking Muslims with money are expanding.

Alcohol-free resorts are opening with separate-sex swimming pools, or fenced-off or curtained-off beaches. For such women-only beaches and pools, Mr Colgecen is selling briefer and less restrictive costumes featuring skirts and shorts and minus the headgear, not unlike Edwardian swimwear. For mixed bathing, though, full cover-up is de rigueur. Mr Colgecen admits there are problems. "There have been cases where they put a curtain up for swimming and the mayor's office ordered it taken down. They say the beach has to be open to everyone. They have no respect. It should be a matter of choice. The ones who want to have conservative swimming, they come to us."