In the wake of Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution in 1949 China became the drabbest society on earth. Gone were the last vestiges of Qing-era silk. Gone were the Western outfits favoured by the nationalists between the wars. In the pursuit of strict equality everyone was issued with what looked very much like pyjamas. Grey ones. Yet today when you walk down a typical Chinese street what you see is a kaleidoscope of Western styles of clothing. Advertising hoardings in all the major cities extol the virtues of Western brands from Armani to Ermenegildo Zegna. Like every other industrial revolution, China’s began with textile production. Until recently, most of the garments manufactured in the coastal Special Economic Zones were intended for export to the West. Now, with demand down in depressed Western economies, the principal challenge facing policy-makers in Beijing is how to make the Chinese worker save less and consume more; in other words, buy more clothes. It seems as if the triumph of the West’s consumer society is close to being complete. Or is it?
Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city, where the outward trappings of Western civilization have long been commonplace in the streets. Stroll down the main shopping thoroughfare of İstiklâl Caddesi and you could be almost anywhere in the Mediterranean world. But go elsewhere in the same city – in the Fatih area near Sultan Ahmet, for example – and things look very different. For devout Muslims, Western norms of female attire are unacceptable because they reveal far more than is prescribed by their religion.* And that is why, in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, the headscarf, the veil (niqāb or khimār) and the loose black body covering (abaya) have been making a comeback.
This represents a major change in direction for Turkey. As we saw in Chapter 2, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatürk, set out to Westernize the way Turks dressed, banning the wearing of religious clothing in all state institutions. The secularist military government that came to power in 1982 revived this policy by prohibiting female students from wearing headscarves at university. This ban was not rigorously enforced until after 1997, however, when the Constitutional Court explicitly ruled that the wearing of headscarves on academic premises – including schools as well as universities – violated article 2 of the constitution, which enshrines the secular character of the republic. (The wearing of long beards by male students was also pronounced unconstitutional.) When university and school authorities called in riot police to enforce this ruling, the country was plunged into crisis. In October 1998 around 140,000 people protested against the ban by linking hands to form a human chain in more than twenty-five provinces. In Istanbul thousands of girls opted to miss classes rather than remove their headscarves; some held daily vigils outside their school gates. At Inönü University in Eastern Anatolia a demonstration against the ban turned violent, leading to the arrest of 200 protesters. A number of young women in the eastern city of Kars even committed suicide over the issue,* while a judge who upheld the ban was shot dead in court in May 2006. In 2008 the Islamist government, led since 2003 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, amended the constitution to allow headscarves in universities, only to have the decision overturned by the Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights has also upheld the headscarf ban.
The issue illustrates, once again, how our outward trappings can have a deeper significance. Is the headscarf or the veil merely an expression of personal faith, which any Westernized society should tolerate on the principle of freedom of expression? Or is it an antiquated symbol of the sexual inequality ordained by Islam, which a secular society should prohibit? The question is represented by Islamists like the journalist Nihal Bengisu Karaca as a matter of individual freedom and human rights:
We want to be treated the same as the women who do not wear the scarf. We are the same, nothing is different, we want to be treated the same. We have all the rights that they have … We just want a democracy between the ladies who don’t wear a scarf and those who do wear the scarf.111
The Islamist argument is that covering up is no more than a harmless option, which some women freely choose to exercise. The veil, they say, is just another form of feminine attire, available in Istanbul stores in all kinds of colours and styles, with diamanté for the more flamboyantly inclined. The reality, of course, is that promoting the headscarf is part of a wider agenda to limit women’s rights by introducing sharia law in Turkey, achieving gradually what was achieved much more suddenly in Iran after the 1979 Revolution – a backlash against the Shah’s ‘Westoxification’ (gharbzadegi) of Iran, which the Ayatollah Khomeini converted into a drastic sexual counter-revolution.112 Already you can see burqas in the streets of Istanbul, covering their wearers in black from head to foot, leaving them with only a tiny slit to see out of – concealing their identities so totally that in 2010 the French National Assembly voted to prohibit such garments altogether. It is no accident that this sartorial shift has been accompanied by a change in Turkish foreign policy. Once a pro-American pillar of NATO and a candidate for membership of the European Union, Turkey is increasingly turning eastwards, vying with the Iranian Islamic Republic for leadership of the Muslim world, reviving memories of the days of Ottoman power.
In short (or in long, if you prefer), what people wear matters. The West’s two great economic leaps forward – the industrial evolution and the consumer society – were to a huge extent about clothes: first making them more efficiently, and then wearing them more revealingly. The spread of the Western way of dress was inseparable from the spread of the Western way of life, just as the backlash against Western dress in the Muslim world is a symptom of a global Islamic revival. The Iranian revolutionaries disparaged Westernizers as fokoli, from the French word faux-col (bow tie), and men in Tehran today pointedly eschew ties.113 With the growth of Muslim communities in Western Europe, veiled women are now as common a sight on the streets of London as Manchester United football strips are on the streets of Shanghai. Should Britain follow the French in banning the burqa? Or does the West’s consumer society have an antidote to the veil as effective as blue jeans once were to Maoist pyjamas?
Perhaps, on reflection, these are the wrong questions to ask. For they imply that all the achievements of Western civilization – capitalism, science, the rule of law and democracy – have been reduced to nothing more profound than a spot of shopping. Retail therapy may not be the answer to all our problems. Maybe the ultimate threat to the West comes not from radical Islamism, or any other external source, but from our own lack of understanding of, and faith in, our own cultural heritage.