Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Politics of Underwear

PHOTO from Milliyet: These İstanbul beachgoers are protesting new laws aimed to crack down on the bathing habits of poorer İstanbulular. Holding signs declaring that not all are able to afford nice swimsuits, they argue İstanbul's poor should not be discriminated against. After all, we all just want to swim, right?

I had not heard of this debate until today, but apparently there was much ado in the summer of 2005 concerning the swimming habits of the poorer sectors of İstanbul's population. Appalled by men swimming in their underwear and women wearing full chadors on the beach, the city's elite soon organized enough pressure to pass a municipal reform making it illegal to swim in one's underwear and requiring that women not cover their legs while taking a dip. Another matter of sartorial politics, the underwear controversy is an interesting illustration of the class conflicts between "white Turks" and "black Turks." So, despite the fact that this happened in 2005, it is an interesting complement to the recent news on the türban.

The so-called "white Turks" represent the established, most often secular elite of Turkey's old guard and have proudly adopted a cosmopolitan, European-type lifestyle. As Karl Vick's reportage in the Washington Post includes, they eat fish, not the traditional kebap. (Although, I am sure they eat plenty of kebap.) The opening pages of Orhan Pamuk's İstanbul give a wonderful description of what it means to be a "white Turk." Pamuk writes of his childhood contemplation of the sitting rooms devoted to Western culture in which he used to play as a child—their museum-like qualities and the pianos that went unplayed.

In contrast, the "black Turks" represent the rural poor who began to move into the cities as early as the 1950s and whose presence began to be viewed as a serious threat to the European-type Turkish identity as their immigration accelerated in the 1980s. They are seen as less refined by their "white Turk" counterparts and still hold tightly to the customs of the countryside they brought with them. From the article:
The flap appeared to begin with a screed that a columnist unleashed in the July 27 issue of the newspaper Radikal. Mine G. Kirikkanat, a very white Turk, began by writing about how proud she was of Istanbul's shiny international airport, which "lights up Turkey's 'non-Arab' face."

But the drive into the city, she wrote, was something else. In the parks along the shore road toward town, "men in their underwear rest ruminating, women wearing black chadors or headscarves all are fanning the barbecue. ... This view is repeated every 10 meters square, our dark people cooking meat by the sea that they turn their [behinds] toward."

"Carnivore Islamistan," the columnist dubbed the scene, capturing in a brutal phrase the major fault line of class and politics in modern Turkey.

If the kebab is the staple food of Anatolia, the white Turks native to Istanbul prefer sea bass, bluefish and other delicate catches of the two seas that bracket the city and the Bosporus Strait in between. And this, too, has caused consternation.

But while the men were branded as offensive for being undressed, their wives were deemed unsuitable for wearing the long cloaks favored by religious Muslim women. Modern Turkey, though 99 percent Muslim, was founded in 1923 as a secular republic, and was led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the dashing military hero who conceived the nation-state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk embraced the French definition of secularism — not so much neutral toward all faiths as antagonistic toward public expressions of the dominant religion.

In Turkey, female government employees are forbidden to wear the head scarves that, despite the official line, a majority of Turkish women wear, some out of tradition, others for religious reasons. Ataturk favored tuxedos, cigarettes and pinups of models in bikinis.

"We are Ataturk's women!" shouted Mine Okcugil, 38, clasping the hand of the woman in the chaise lounge next to her at Caddebostan. Her own bikini was in danger of falling off her front. She works at the Agriculture Ministry.

"We are all modern women of the republic," said Semra Aydemir, 52, a retired teacher, also in a tiny two-piece. "We are against terrorism. We are against violence. We are against ugliness."

So it is that men and women roaming the beach in T-shirts reading "Security" keep an eye peeled not only for men wearing too little but for women wearing too much. Female beach-goers no longer are allowed to wade with their legs covered by flowing fabric.
The immigrant population represented by the "black Turks" is still struggling in its coming to terms with urban life and integration of the two groups has been quite difficult, thus giving birth to the bizarre (and racist) terminology. The difficulty is owed to poverty (European tastes are expensive), a lack of social mobility, and a resentment on the part of the "white Turks" that stifles opportunities for the kinds of social interactions between classes that would facilitate integration. This resentment is quite well-portrayed in the article and is also seen in the türban debate (see Feb. 19 post). Some of this lack of integration is also no doubt owed to the fact that these "black Turks" do not necessarily want to adopt the lifestyle of their "white Turk" counterparts.

However, this division is very much a simplification, and as is often the case in Turkish politics, it is the complication of simplifications in which meaning can be found. Take the case of Abdullah Gül who in many ways is more cultured and sophisticated than the "white Turks" who oppose him. Gül is a pious Muslim who devoutly observes Ramazan and namaz, gives money to Islamic schools and charities, and has a spouse who opts to wear the türban (although his detractors say Ms. Gül has been coerced). At the same time, he was educated in Europe, wears sharp suits, and is well-known for his business knack. Like many AKP politicians and their supporters, he represents what has been called the new Islamic middle class. This new class represents a fissue in the social order as it does not easily fit within the "white"/"black" divide. Insomuch as this fissue threatens the social order, it disturbs the "white Turks." The fissure has also generated a politics of fear that pervades Turkish politics, most significantly in regard to secularism.

Whether it is swimming in underwear or donning a türban at university, the "white Turks'" fear of losing control of the social realities with which they are accustomed and comfortable is very much the driving factor behind these odd restricitions. Already uncomfortable with difference, the "white Turks" are being pressed to find new approaches to settling the fact that not all sectors of Turkish society can or do share their tastes, values, and customs. As evidenced by the recent türban decision, the approach so far has largely been the old, reliable authoritarian one: refusal to acknowledge and/or negotiate difference. The sniveling is only likely to increase.

And, just as an aside, I have been to European beaches. . . and, yes, along with others, swam in my underwear. No one seemed to care. Why is it an issue in Turkey?

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