Almost a decade ago as the controversy over headscarves raged in University campuses across Turkey, a professor had admonished her student for covering, advising her to discard the scarf to “experience the freedom of wind blowing through her hair” During my ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey, spread over six years to 2016 meeting members of varying social groups, the same student had remembered her humiliation and the teacher’s lack of sensitivity toward women who were now exercising their ‘choice’ to cover in her conversations with me.
Ironically, Tim Foo’s monumental sculpture, “Free Flowing” in solidarity with Teheran’s protesting women also evokes for some, that very moment which had so offended my Ankara student.
“If a person wants to know me he must know my brain first, my opinions, and not my body.” Hacer to the author on why she insists on headscarf.
When I arrived in 2009, I knew little about Turkey except that under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, its French model of secularism had succeeded in eliminating symbols of religiosity in public life. The chance to explore how Islam negotiates modernity, while also observing an imagination of secularism different from the Indian one, prompted my research on practices of ‘lived Islam.’ My focus on a variety of religious conversations in different contexts became a means to search for insights on how religious practices have evolved in adaptation and accommodation with Turkey’s specific brand of secularism. Here, I share some memorable fieldwork experiences and encounters that shaped my understanding. In particular I focus on the headscarf, and a Turkish Islamic practice called sohbet.
Initially I was hesitant to undertake such research owing to a general lack of preparedness shared by sociologists of my generation – a tendency to dismiss the importance of religion in the lives of ordinary people, often attributing it to ‘false consciousness.’ Meanwhile, in India we continue to pay the price for this dismissal, as a living faith with its multifarious diversity has been usurped into a singular, muscular, misogynist ‘Temple Hinduism,’ to quote Vinay Lal. As this has been accompanied by a steady demonization of Islam, the opportunity to examine Islamic practice in another geography, proved irresistible.
A more immediate reason was the visible reappraisal of Islam underway in Turkey about the place of religion and its vitality in public life. During my years teaching Social Anthropology in Middle East Technical University, campuses witnessed a dramatic rise in covered students, just after the ban on headscarves was lifted by the ruling AK party in 2008. The telling account below alerted me to the easing of restrictions of the kind experienced by Meral, a young student at my university.
M: When I was in my first year on campus, I used to wear a hat since the headscarf was not allowed on campus. The assistant of the Dept. Chair would wag her finger every time she saw me and say, “Take it off”. Then she would warn that she would have me disciplined or complain to University authorities. When I went to the small mesjid, Marxist students hanging around would glare and I would glare back. I could not go to the Medico because of my hat, nor enter the dorms.
Once I had to give a library card to a student in the dorm and as soon as I entered the building, the warden saw me coming and shouted at me to step out immediately. I said that the girl’s room is on the same floor, just two steps away, let me give her this, at which the warden said, “Go out, take off your hat and then you can come in”. I was so humiliated, I called her “Funny’ and then she said “You’re Funny” back to me. I started to weep and then walked out and gave the card to students who were going into the building. It was a mortifying experience.
The same thing happened at the medicos when I was asked first to take off my hat, while the boy before me was not. In any case I looked like a Ninja Turtle those days, with my long coat and cap. Another time, a lecturer said to me to take off my hat, shake my hair in order to experience the pleasure of the wind blowing through my hair. I was so stunned to hear this from a staff member, I couldn’t even think of what to say.
STJ: You must be so relieved at being able to wear this flattering pink scarf now.
M: Yes, now when I pass by that assistant to the Dept Chair, I give her a look, but of course she does not dare say a word. This was only two years ago, after all. I wonder how all these women can be so insensitive to the headscarf here in the heart of Anatolia, where less than 70 years ago, everyone covered their hair and even now, women of rural Anatolia never leave their hair uncovered- it just isn’t decent.
As a potent and visible symbol with layered meanings, the headscarf suggests outright rejection of rapid Westernization induced by Kemalist reforms. It has also come to signify the agency of women, rather than religious restrictions or patriarchal controls. Ironically, the women now choosing to cover are educated, aspirational, and prominent in the public sphere. Covering the head and shoulders, the colorful turban (tessetur) is sometimes accompanied by a long coat and has been adopted by urban women. Unlike rural women or migrants to cities, these women proudly drape their opulent headscarves in the style made fashionable by fast-proliferating women’s magazines for covered women.
I was to learn that Turkey had witnessed an upsurge in Islamic Movements since the 1980s, often characterized by women in the forefront. Those disillusioned by the Republic were finding religious movements especially appealing as they held out the promise of emancipation via Islam. Moreover, Movement discourses identified secularism and modernism as responsible for the humiliation and exploitation of women. Kemalist notions of modernity associated the headscarf with passivity, rurality, ignorance, and traditionalism- now being challenged by veiled female students.
Hacer described her headscarf as her identity. ‘If a person wants to know me he must know my brain first, my opinions, and not my body’. She says that the scarf actually isolates the face and highlights it and since externalities like the hair and body might distract, this ensures that the face is the focus of attention through which thoughts and opinions are being articulated. She then went on to describe other episodes that reinforced her opinion about the headscarf conferring both respectability and the ‘chance of being taken seriously’ in the gendered social world she inhabits.
‘If you do not respect yourself, people are not likely to respect you either.
Scarf actually gives a lot of freedom and since I’ve been using the scarf for two years, the respect I have received has rather enhanced”.
My students were unparalleled sources of learning about lived Islam. Invited to a student’s family gathering for the celebration of Kurban Bayram in the small town of Kirsehir in November 2012, I had the opportunity to engage in intense interactions and conversations with several generations. The outspoken matriarch of this family, my student’s grandmother, bemoaned the fact that every single one of her daughters and daughters-in-law had taken to covering and was visibly religious. This Kemalist enthusiast could not comprehend why her daughters were reversing through their restrictive practices, the every freedoms her own generation of women had known and enjoyed all these years. Youngsters in the family laughed and joked at how their grandfather would give them small bribes just so that they would not cover when they came of age. Ironically, these youngsters ‘just wanted to be taken seriously,’ besides greatly admiring ‘those elegant covered women with their tesseturs who move like the wind and make you want to be like them’.
On Sohbet as site of discursive reading and conversation
Well into a year of research, I found that one of my covered students regularly attended sohbet. As a discursive practice of reading and conversation, this term derived from the Arabic suhba, the root of sahaba, refers to the manner of socialization between the Prophet and his companions. As a learning program in which people subject to critical scrutiny their attitudes, choices and preferences to bring them in line with Qu’ranic ideals, its emphasis on ‘conscious’ motivation aims at achieving social and individual transformation. Continuity with an idealized past thus becomes the source of knowledge and inspiration – associated with transmission of knowledge about Qur’an from Sufi masters to followers. After a long search for a community of scholars who wouldn’t mind my participation in their sohbet sessions, I managed to find one where I was welcome. Then, in the traditions of ethnographic fieldwork, I spent two semesters with such a community, aiming to understand motivations and pedagogical practices.
In this sohbet community of middle-class housewives, I learnt about interpretations that pious women ascribe to religious texts as well as to prayers, family, and community. As together we read Said Nursi’s wonderfully metaphorical text, The Risale-Nur, I saw how women were learning to infuse spirituality into their roles of mothers and wives. For many of them from liberal, secular backgrounds, their upbringing inspired by Ataturk’s ideals was such that the separation between church and state had translated into minimum engagement with Islamic practice. Limited prior exposure to Islam in societal and familial settings meant that their desire to learn about Islam was immense.
“The emotionally charged atmosphere of the sohbet met a host of needs, allowing them to integrate Islamic practices into daily routines. Knowledge that had been unfamiliar and unavailable to mothers and grandmothers was now empowering these young women. Regular attendance also introduced them to specific visions of the past and the future, while further disrupting male-centered ways of understanding the world.”
However, what struck me about these weekly meetings was the emphasis on discussions about life, relationships and family rather than questions about piety, spirituality or the divine.
One such meeting was held in the home of a woman named Ayse. Upon entering, I was immediately struck by her home’s astonishingly white décor, frothy and lacy, resembling a giant wedding cake. The lush green outdoors was viewable through the large windows, and nothing had the slightest pretense of looking old. Like Ayse, most of the young women of my group decorated their homes to evoke a mood of pristine purity and newness – a white aesthetic that was discernible in furniture, carpets and wall art. These home spaces were reminiscent of a clean slate or an empty, shiny surface studiously devoid of bright color. Wondering about family heirlooms that were not on display, framed family photographs that I could not locate and old Turkish carpets that I could not admire, I immediately remembered Bourdieu, realizing that I was witnessing a new Turkish ‘habitus’.
“My sohbet mates sought to distinguish themselves from ‘traditional’ ways of being Muslim and were keen to underline that they were open to learning about Islam through ‘intellectual engagement’ in ways that rural women were not.”
Underlining discipline, for example, Serpil explained how she structured her entire day according to the requirements of the five times prayer. From her I learnt not only that new mosques were being constructed with designated areas for women’s worship, but that the new malls were equipped with mesjids to cater to the needs of women who typically shopped for 4, 5 hours. She drew attention to the increasing visibility of women in Turkey’s public sphere – a phenomenon she then credited to the practice of namaz. Zehra added that for her, ‘silent zikr’ was the modern and intellectual way of remembering God. Clearly, these women were preoccupied with Islam’s modern revitalization, its place in the modern world and visibility in public life, while highlighting their own rational, practical approach.
In addition to the self-assured middle class women described above, there was plenty yet to learn about sohbet as a mode of transmission of knowledge through which religious consciousness is cultivated, and the means to acquire cultural capital engendered. The Sunni sohbet was not the only kind I attended. The fame of Ankara’s woman healer of Turkey’s minority Alevi community drew me every Thursday to her dergah over an entire semester. The oral tradition of Alevis was mostly developed in the vakifs (pious foundations) and cemevi associations. Largely owing to a history of persecution by the Ottoman state, esoteric knowledge was perforce orally transmitted. The traditional medium for its dissemination was poetry. Songs became the means by which the tradition was remembered, interpreted and constantly redefined and the asik or bard as guardian of sacred texts, combined epic storytelling with knowledge of popular Sufism. Through my fieldwork on a charismatic living saint, Zohre Ana, I argued that religious leaders, seeing themselves as creators of religious discourse might deploy a variety of strategies along with a distinct vision, to give shape to the sohbet, as well as contemporize it. I was interested in the distinctive discourses at her sohbet and their appeal for Zohre Ana’s followers – sections of Ankara’s rural Alevi migrants. Although she draws support from a relatively small niche of Ankara’s rural migrants both from Ankara and Germany, her followers are from specific locations such as the working class neighborhood of Mamak – a squatter settlement until the 80s. Her followers unanimously attribute Zohre Ana’s growing significance to her role as bridge-builder between the ruptured Sunni, Kurdish, Alevi identities since the 1980s.
Much of Zohre Ana’s fame derives from her ability to offer ‘cures’- especially for infertility. Her followers claim to have been bestowed with children just by consuming apples sanctified by her. In innumerable accounts of the saint’s keramets, the sick and paralyzed are said to have started walking at her touch. In sohbet, approximately 70 to 80 visitors sit for hours on their knees on the carpeted floor, in rapt attention. The mere mention of the saint provokes a reverent gesture in her followers – kissing forefinger and thumb and bringing them to the forehead, to underline the awe and respect that Zohre Ana evokes in these circles. Many of my informants refer to her as ‘Kurban Oldun’ (loosely translated: The one I could sacrifice myself for). Their fervor for Zohre Ana can only be described as overwhelming. Doney deploys vivid body imagery,
“When you enter the same room as Zohre Ana, your whole body becomes Zohre Ana and one goes along the path that she shows. Then, when I see her I often cannot utter a word. I am in tears. If she comes to the sohbet late, my heart beats fast. Whenever I say to my Pir ‘please give me permission to come to your door’, Allah gives me a reason to come. When I am on the minibus coming here, I feel I am flying.”
Zohre Ana’s sohbet sessions revealed an alternative Islamic imagination – one that has been wholly sidelined in Turkey. Yet, this thoroughly “modern” saint exudes an air of authority and assurance that would not be out of place in a contemporary political setting. Sessions begin with women recounting their miraculous childbirth stories, their narratives full of emotion, punctuated by approving ‘Allah Allahs’ from the audience. Devotees are overwhelmed, often bathed in tears. Zohre Ana perfunctorily ‘taps’ each one – a signature healing gesture referred to as Zohre Ana’s ‘paw of Ali.’ The saint is articulate and persuasive, drawing on Alevi wisdom and interpreting it for her audience, while also adding her own particular ‘spin’ to contemporary issues. At the close of the sohbet, Zohre Ana again transmits healing by pressing a green cloth over limbs and faces. Devotees eagerly wait for this moment when the saint’s ‘touch’ and ‘gaze’, albeit brief, will be upon each of them. It could be argued that in ‘reclaiming’ her message through sohbet, she is also engaged in a continuous renegotiation of tradition. If this mystical ‘retrieval’ is somewhat unconvincing for her many detractors, this is also precisely what constitutes the core of Zohre Ana’s sainthood.
In Umman, a visionary and trance like state, Zohre Ana says she gets acquainted with saints, convincing her followers that the saints speak through her. During my first visit, she had mentioned, for instance, that she was sometimes in conversation with Saeed Saaleh, a deceased saint from India. She mentions another saint who can be seen in every 12 years on the Ganges as a green light- the Hizir Alevi Selaam.
“I’d be happy if a specific saint I am thinking of at a particular time would teach me something but at that time, instead of the one I want, some other one comes along.” When she feels lost, they visit her. “Sometimes, I remember that for 24 hours I was in umman with them”. Recently, she wants to be in umman, and yet people approach with their mundane problems such as, “My wife wants to leave me, my husband is going to leave me. I get tired of the problems of society and instead of being busy with the love of Allah, I am distracted by people’s problems” and then she ends up “feeling like the fake saints,” the ones she is always warning against.
Shifting to ethical conversations I had with people who visit shrines in Ankara, I explored the question of people’s expectations from ziyaret, or visits to tombs of saints. Ziyaret is a practice common in the Islamic world but one that has fallen into disfavor within the Turkish religious mainstream. Shrines are spaces where the state’s homogenizing project about “correct” Islamic practices is spelt out, and sometimes, the Islamist denunciation of superstition can be staged. A range of social and political anxieties regarding ‘anti-modern’ tendencies, coalesce at the shrines. As both Sunnis and Alevis visit shrines, these spaces offered a diverse mix of visitors who contributed a range of perspectives on their practices, through informal conversations. One of my concerns was to unravel ways in which people’s practices are informed by state discourses, as well as in opposition to them. The perspectives of visitors elicited at shrines through extended interviews as well as the informality of their locations thus complemented discussions on the structured sohbet as a form of ethical conversation. I conclude with this insight from Naime, a teacher of English, about the possible reasons for the abolition of the Sufi orders by the republican state:
As husbands did not talk to their wives, rarely praising them, women searched out sheikhs. Husbands did not talk to their wives but sheikhs did. When with Sheikhs, women were transformed. Many women went to the shrines to engage in communication. They talked about their problems. Women’s spiritual investment at shrines was often beneficial to the caretakers of shrines who got presents and money from them- the sweaters they knitted, the cookies they baked. The tarikats needed membership and once women were at the shrine, they could frankly share their problems with other women who would in turn suggest experts for specific difficulties.
In suggesting that sheikhs were able to access women’s secrets, we also have a layered discourse and a novel argument about ‘neglected women’ who were ripe for being seduced when they visited shrines – in turn serving as a rationalization for the closure of Turkey’s Sufi orders.