Letter from Istanbul: The Girl with the Headscarf and Mini-Skirt

James Tressler / Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012 @ 7:39 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

Headscarves and Miniskirts: Searching for the female Islamic anti-hero

headscarf and mini

I was having drinks one evening with my friend Mehmet at Hera Bar on the Asian side of the city. It was early September, just when the nights were beginning to get cooler.

With us was a student who introduced himself as Nasim, and he was Palestinian. He was studying cryptology at Sabanji University. With him were two young women, Agnes, from Budapest, and Caroline, from Bordeaux in France, and a young Turk named Gökhan. The three of them were studying business and economics.

“So how do you like Istanbul so far?” my friend Mehmet asked.

The women answered with tired, but enthusiastic eyes.

“Fine, I like it very much,” Nasim, the Palestinian, answered. He told us he been in the city about a year.

“And what do you think about the Turkish people?” Gökhan asked. “I mean, if you could describe us in one or two sentences -“

“I would say the Turkish people are a very confused people,” Nasim said, almost immediately. He had clearly given the question some thought before. “I mean,” he continued, “they don’t seem to know what they want. Half of the people want to be European, and the other half want to be Islamic. Very confused.”

Nobody at the table seemed particularly taken aback back this assessment. As I say, the girls were tired and just sipped their drinks and listened. The Turks, Gökhan and Mehmet, urged Nasim to coninue.

“I mean,” Nasim went on, “yesterday, I was on Bagdat Caddesi, and there was this girl I saw. She was wearing a headscarf and a miniskirt!”

“You mean, like, together?” I asked. “At the same time?”

“Yes, at the same time. A headscarf and a mini-skirt!” He looked at us and shook his head in disbelief.

“It’s not possible –” Gökhan interrupted.

“—but I saw her!” Nasim said, waving the interruption off. “Can you imagine? Understand, I am not very religious. I believe in God, yes. And I believe a woman can wear whatever she wants, but -“

“It’s interesting,” said Caroline, the French girl, speaking for the first time since we sat down.

“Yes, was she a student?” asked Agnes, the other girl.

“Yes, I think so.”

“She probably comes from a rich family,” offered Mehmet. He was busy sending messages on his Blackberry.

The evening broke up shortly after that, for the young women wanted to get to bed, and Nasim was showing them back to the hostel where
they were staying.

“Sorry, we have to turn in,” Caroline said. “But you know, it was a long trip.”

“Istanbul is a lot to take in the first day,” I said, commiserating.

“If you need any help, let us know,” said Mehmet, taking her number.

After that evening, I found myself thinking more about Nasim’s story about the girl in the headscarf and mini-skirt. In three years in Istanbul, I have seen just about everything in terms of dress. Especially in Taksim Square, the heart of the city’s entertainment district. On a Friday night, you’ll see women dressed as openly and fashionably as the women in New York, Paris or London. At the same time, go to Fahti, one of the more conservative quarters of the city, and most of the women wear headscarves and are completely covered. So I’ve seen my share of mini-skirts, and I’ve seen my share of headscarves. But as far as seeing a woman wear both at the same time, no. That was a new one, and I found myself intrigued.

At first I feared my interest was just sexual, you know, as if I had some kind of Madonna-Whore complex, or a religious fetish. Like those guys who get off watching porn films featuring lesbians dressed up as nuns. It’s provocative perhaps, but ultimately cheap, unoriginal. I was after something new, different.

I thought about writing a story about her, making her a kind of bold, rebellious young girl who “does what she wants,” regardless of what a disapproving society may say. I imagined giving her a name like “Gözde,” which means “favourite.” This would be an ironic name, since in Ottoman times, this name was given to the girl in the harem who the Sultan desired most. I mean, it’s a traditional name, right?

After considering other Turkish girls’ names (Zeynep, Aynur, Elif, et al) and rejecting them for various reasons, I finally settled on Gamze. Gamze in Turkish means “dimple.” Loosely, it also means, a smiling person. Someone who is happy. Why this name, you ask? I have known exactly two Gamzes in my time in Istanbul, one from Van and the other from Hatay. Both are very conservative, traditional Muslim cities. True, neither Gamze wears headscarves, though I have seen them in mini-skirts, and it’s also true that neither of them would ever think of wearing a headscarf.

Both are healthy, radiant and happy young Turkish women, dimples and all. I like to imagine my heroine as being happy with herself, and with her chosen unique style. So, Gamze it is.

But as a storyteller, I had to put my heroine through the Truth Test. I mean, how do I know that Nasim wasn’t just drunk that night at the Hera Bar, and made the whole thing up just to stir us up?

At the Migros headquarters in Atashehir, where I teach twice a week, I decided to ask Bashak, a young woman who works as a receptionist. We frequently chat in the mornings when I’m between lessons. For the record, Bashak is in her early twenties, a graduate of Ankara University, and dresses in a modern, Western style of dress.

“Bashak,” I began. “Have you ever seen a woman in Istanbul wearing a headscarf and a mini-skirt?”

It actually took a couple of minutes to make Bashak understand what I was driving at. Her English isn’t that strong, and the conversation was frequently interrupted by people coming in and out of the lobby.

“You mean, a headscarf and a mini-skirt – together?” she asked, finally getting it.

“Yes.”

Her eyes narrowed, picturing the image of my daring Gamze. She shook her head. “No,” she said. “It is not possible. In Turkey, if a woman wears a headscarf, she must wear long dress. No short dress. She must – how you say? Yes, cover herself. Not wearing headscarf and mini-skirt together. No.”

“OK, but I mean, could she?” My dear Gamze was clinging for life in my desperate imagination, blurring, vanishing. But I fought on. “I mean, it’s not illegal, is it?”

“No, not illegal,” Bashak mused. Her hands struggled to find the words in English. “But people – you know. They would gossip. They may even tell her family.”

Ok, so it wasn’t impossible.

That afternoon, I decided to run my question by my director. She’s a veteran teacher who has been living in Turkey for more than two decades, and has travelled all over the country.

“What do you mean by ‘headscarf?’” she asked. “Do you mean, with the turban underneath?”

“No,” I said. “Just your plain, run-of-the-mill headscarf”

“And with a mini-skirt?”

“Yes.”

“You mean – like, together?”

“Yes.” The spirit of my heroine Gamze stood quietly by me, showing off her radiant, rebellious smile, the same question burning impatiently, defiantly in our eyes.

“Why, of course!” my director said. “In Taksim. Actually, this girl your friend saw. She might have been changing. A lot of the girls, the ones from conservative families, they carry two sets of clothes. When they get to Taksim, they change into their Western clothes.”

“Yes, but this girl wasn’t changing,” I insisted. “She was just walking down Badgat Caddesi.”

“Maybe,” my director said. “But it’s unlikely. People would say something to her.”

“What would they say?” I asked. “I mean, they can’t arrest her or anything.”

“No, but James,” she went on. “So years ago, I was walking with a Turkish teacher in Fahti (the conservative district). I was wearing shorts – it was summertime and I didn’t think about it – and this man came up to me and said, in English, ‘You are shameless! Don’t you know this is a conservative place!’ You should have heard my Turkish friend, she had words with the man, and he had words right back.”

That same evening, I was having a discussion with an Iranian girl who was couch surfing at our flat. She’s in her early twenties, goes by the Western name “Clara,” and lives in Canada. She was passing through Istanbul on her way back to Canada, having spent some time back in Iran visiting family.

We sat on the couch watching the Real Madrid-Manchester City match with my flatmate Vulkan. I told Clara about my quest to find this girl in the headscarf and mini-skirt, and to bring her to life as the rebel, the contemporary Muslim anti-heroine, the fictional Gamze.

Clara liked the story, and I asked if, when she went back to Iran to visit, whether she had to cover herself.

“Yes, I do have to cover myself,” she answered. She had long, wavy red-brown hair and hazel eyes. At the moment, she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

I told her what Nasim, the Palestinian, had said about Turkey.

“Well, maybe it is a bit confused,” Clara reflected. “But you know, I think that is what makes it so interesting. Especially Istanbul. There is so much going on.”

OK, I thought. It is possible for a girl in Istanbul to wear a headscarf and a mini-skirt. She might be gossiped about, even publicly chastised, or even worse. Still, it could be done.

Seeing the girl from a different perspective, I think she fits into a lot of thoughts I’ve been having about Istanbul ever since I arrived. I see this girl in my mind as a young person simply in search of her identity. She wants to be contemporary, and to explore, and yet she also wishes to preserve something of her cultural and religious heritage.

Some day I may well write that story. In the meantime, I’m grateful to Nasim for bringing the girl to my imagination’s attention. As I say, she speaks to a lot of thoughts I’ve had over these past three years, living in this modern, and yet very ancient city, a society where contemporary and traditional values frequently clash, and where some women still struggle to be who they want to be. There are hopes for my Gamze after all.

James Tressler covered politics for the Times-Standard. He is the author of several books, including “Conversations in Prague,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” available at amazon.com and lulu.com He currently is living in Istanbul.

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