Barbie in a Headscarf

Yesterday was a first for me; the first time the number of women wearing a full Islamic swimsuit outnumbered those without. Yet only 10 years ago, there were none on my local beach, then as now, frequented by the middle classes of Istanbul and Ankara. Indeed, I remember one occasion, when two women actually started haranguing a lady in a Islamic swimsuit until she and her husband moved quietly to a deserted piece of beach. Of course Turkey is a secular society, so in theory that woman should have been free to express her religion. However, nothing has divided public opinion here or filled more newspaper column inches than the issue of the headscarf – Turban in Turkish.

They say Turkey is 99% Muslim but few people wear their religion on their sleeve. Outwardly however, there are visible differences between the secular and those regarded as Islamic. In men it is quiet subtle: most Islamists maintain what my friends call a fundamentalist moustache, which is basically trimmed about half a centimetre above the top lip line. In women it is more obvious and characterised by a colourful headscarf that shows no hair, whatsoever, all gathered at the back in a bulbous bud. This style is quite different from that worn by rural women or women from the poorer areas of the city, who have a much more relaxed style of headscarf, where some hair is visible or it only covers the crown of the head. This more traditional style, is just as much about maintaining the hair, perhaps while working in the fields as it is about being a Muslim. However, about 10 years ago I learned that the biggest difference between many of these women is the attitudes of their men.

I had just woken in the garden of a hotel in the small Black Sea town of Sila (pronounced Shil-la) and noticed a rather portly gentleman sat across the pool from me with his headscarfed wife, who despite fierce heat wore a full length coat and trousers. When the husband stood up to allow his wife to rub in sun cream, his ample belly overhung his Speedo’s so much, it gave the disconcerting impression, that he may actually be naked. Completing this domestic scene in the kiddies pool, their daughter of about five years old, in just her bikini bottoms, played quietly with a doll

What caught my eye was the figure the child was playing with. It’s a Barbie doll, a Barbie in a silver bikini, but with something odd on her head. When I put on my sunglasses I am amazed to see Barbie’s famous blonde hair is tied up under a headscarf made from the exact same material as the one the child’s mother is wearing.

An hour later walking the almost deserted beach with my friend Ozman, I notice Mr Speedo and his daughter snoozing side by side on a beach towel decorated in football colours, before I hear his wife call from the sea. She now wears a blue, all-in-one Islamic swimsuit. I have never seen anything like it before and cannot believe such things are easy or even safe to swim in. Covering her head and entire body it swirls around so much Ozman jokes, perhaps unkindly, and names it a Jellyfish suit.

As we get closer a large wave hits her and I wonder if she’s in difficulty because the suit has ridden up around her face and I can clearly see one of her bare arms. However, I relax after the husband runs into the sea, I assume to save her. As he swims he shouts, what I imagine is some encouragement. But after the woman coughs up a little sea water and reaches for her husband, he punches her body before striking a blow to her face. She cries out and swallows more water, yet he hits her again. Instinctively I step into the water, ready to swim out and intervene, but Ozman grabs my arm and shakes his head. “She will not thank you and he will certainly not thank you; she showed flesh so he believes he’s protecting his honour.”

“Honour” I shout, flabbergasted, loud enough for the husband to hear, before noticing the little girl, crying by the water’s edge, holding her Barbie, now modelling, what seemed to be a full Burka, with tufts of blonde nylon hair protruding through tiny eye holes.

Years on, these contradictory images still haunt and remind me that I am living in a country of political and religious chameleons, people, or rather survivors of more turbulent times, prepared to follow whatever path seems safer or more advantageous to them and their families. Because if you want to hold down your job in one of a hundred Government controlled bodies like the Post Office, Turkish Airlines or any number of financial institutions and banks the only sure way to be successful is to be what the ruling Islamic leaning party, who ultimately control the hiring and firing, expect you to be.

Isn’t some permanent change inevitable, no matter who Turks think they really are after eleven years of Islamic leaning government? And what happens if things eventually go full circle, as it seemed to do on that beach yesterday, when those same women, in their full body blue and green swimsuits began to tut in unison, at a pretty young Turkish girl in a small red bikini.