Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tourism, Islam, and Bikinis: Culture Clashes on Turkish Beaches

by Nomad

Turkey's culture clash between Islam and the West may have found a new battlefield: the nation's sunny beaches. And women could be caught in the middle.

Money Maker

To say that tourism is a big money maker in Turkey is an understatement. With more than 31.5 million foreign tourists, the nation ranks as the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world. 

This year, according to Turkey's largest travel agency association, it will see tourists spending a staggering US$35 billion. That's nearly a 10% increase in both the numbers of visitors and the amount of revenue. Most of those tourists will come from Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, Georgia, Bulgaria and the Netherlands. 
In some of the touristic resorts, summer in Turkey means fun and frolic, a lot of youthful (and not so youthful) wildness. Most of this frivolity involves rivers of alcohol. That situation has left some resorts with a bad reputation with tourists because of the general "anything goes" atmosphere. 
But then, drunkenness, occasional fights or public indecency have always been written off as just part of the drawbacks to mass tourism.

Interestingly, according to the association, this year there will also be a significant increase in the number of Iranian tourists. Given the diversity of cultures, you'd think it would be a challenge to accommodate every taste. Well, it often is.
Surprisingly it hasn't as a major problem as you'd think, mainly because of Turkey's high level of hospitality and tolerance.. and patience.

For Iranian tourist, the main attraction is, in a word, shopping. Iranians can buy hard to find brand names in shopping areas in Istanbul and other major cities that would be impossible to buy in Tehran. That's very good news for the Turkish economy.

As far as Turkish businessmen, Iranian visitors, generally speaking, have an excellent reputation. And they do not tax the patience of the natives like many overzealous Europeans do.
Iranian tourists are well-liked, not just because they are big spenders but because they are polite and rarely make trouble. They generally travel as families, not as gaggles of friends, and a loud, drunk Iranian would be highly unusual sight.
Be that as it may, Turkey has to constantly walk a fine line to please everybody.

Iran, Turkey and the Politics of Fashion

In many ways, Turkey is culturally something of a paradox. It's neither this nor that. But then, that's always been part of its charm for visitors.
Despite the visionary reforms of Ataturk in 1923, the founder of the modern, secular Republic of Turkey, the country remains religious and its people, for the most part, are practicing Muslims. In the rural areas and small towns and villages, the Mosque still regulates life, and in the larger metropolitan areas, where handsome apartment blocks (that put ours to shame) ring the downtown core, the Mosque is almost always included as the centerpiece of any new development.
Despite the ruling party's religious background- some say, agenda- Turkey still remains a secular country.  That's especially true in the Western where secularist thought and women's rights go hand in hand.
Heading in the opposite direction, the nation seamlessly blurs into a more Middle Eastern country, right up to the Iranian border. 

But in terms of what women are permitted to wear, Iran of today is radically different than forty years ago. Prior to the Iranian revolution, under the Shah, wearing a hijab was frowned upon and considered a hindrance to climbing the social ladder and to the chances for advancement for working women. 
All that changed with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Wearing a veil in public became compulsory for all women. 

Over the years, even in the Islamic Republic, there has been some backsliding mostly among the younger, more educated women. Nevertheless, flaunting the rules can bring unwanted attention from the so-called "morality police." 

(In a sign of moderation, President Hassan Rouhani, starting last year, barred the police from arresting women deemed to be immodestly dressed. How that decision functions in the real world may not be clear.)

In Turkey, this relaxed environment could also be part of the appeal for certain Muslim women tourists. In Turkey, there is a perception that many Middle Eastern women- not merely Iranian- come to Turkey to enjoy the openness and the freedoms that are impossible to find back home. 

There is a common (and likely imaginary) anecdote of a Gulf state woman entering a hotel with her husband, completely shrouded, only to emerge hours later, sporting a designer bikini, ready for the pool.
While some in the West may be amused by the image of holiday liberation, how true is that anecdote?
That, according to an article, is only partially true for Iranian tourists.
Iranians also go to resorts like Antalya, Bodrum and Kuşadasi on the Mediterranean coast. They do not seem to mind the crowds, the nightlife or the wild party atmosphere. But the stereotype of Iranian women coming to Turkey to enjoy the freedom to ditch the hejab and switch to a bikini is not wholly accurate; many remain easily recognisable in the headscarves and long coats they would wear back Tehran.

"Live and Let Live" Put to the Test

What survives- ideally- when cultures bump up against one another, is a sense of "live and let live" and a tolerance for diversity. That has remarkably been the case in Turkey despite the stresses of sitting at the fault line of two cultures.

One site gives this accurate picture of what is and what is not accepted.
Turkish women, even those who identify themselves as secular in their world view, tend to be modest in their dress. Traditional female dress consists of the tesettür, the head scarf that resembles the hijab, the toptan pardesü, similar to a light topcoat or kaftan cut off well below the knees, and the salvar, the airy balloon pant. When outside of the home, even in temperatures that sometimes climb to 40 Celsius, the older generation of women keep to traditional dress while most of the young, over jeans and high heels, continue to wear the headscarf.
At the beach, however, the majority of young women have always tended to wear somewhat modest but comfortable beachwear. Practical is the word that comes to mind. 

Toplessness is totally out of the question. For Turkish women, generally speaking, it would be an ayip,  a shame.That's only for daring tourist women and even then, foreign women are apt to draw the fixed and creepy stares of village males of all ages. 

That state of affairs has been the norm for decades now. Years ago, Turkish society was collectively shocked by foreign women in eye-dropping states of public undress.  
But now it seems as though the tide has turned.

This year, more than any other year, women on Turkish beaches are wearing quite a bit more fabric. That's a trend all over the country and not just at the seaside.

Many devout Muslim women come to the beach, (at least in the less touristy areas) in head scarves and what some would liken as to brightly colored overcoats. Except for hands and feet, no skin is exposed to prying eyes.

For the more secular Turkish woman, the image is a little jarring. They tend to see that style as an example of backwardness and subjugation of women. Others would tell you that it is much more than a personal choice or even a fashion statement, and therefore an exercise of religious freedom. Whatever the verdict, this mix of beachwear is a sign of the times. 
But again, it's live and let live.

Temperatures on the Rise

In the past, things between the two cultures have boiled over. Back in 2006, a young Turkish woman was attacked reportedly by a group of Islamists. While the attack began primarily as an altercation, the fact that victim was clad in a bikini provided the group with an excuse to verbally and physically attack her.
The young woman had asked a group of headscarf-wearing women and their families not to soil the beach with the used diapers of their children, only to be called a prostitute because she was wearing a bikini. She was then attacked by the men in the group.
And, it is important to note, this incident happened in the more Europeanized Western part of the country. 
Another incident was reported by the Radikal newspaper:
A fundamentalist sect known as the Rufai set up a makeshift camp at Şile in the northwest near Istanbul and for two months stopped holidaymakers from walking along part of a public beach because of the presence of women in their group.
Such incidents- while worrying- are fortunately exceedingly rare and tend to be sensationalized by the press.

"The Lady that God Wants"

According to one recent report, this summer Turks may soon see an escalation of the culture clash.

In the Black Sea resort of Kaynarca, northwest of Istanbul, Turks and tourists recently encountered something they had not seen before. Groups of traditionally pious Muslims have been walking  along the crowded beaches, attempting to convince women to cover themselves.
On the sandy beaches of Kaynarca, two men wearing thobes and kufis distributed brochures to beach-goers, offering advice about correct Islamic deportment.
The two men, who were accompanied by a child, said they were members of an Islamic foundation from the ultra-conservative neighborhood of Çarşamba in Istanbul’s Fatih district.
The brochure, titled “The lady that God wants” contained a total of 72 points, including the following instructions: “The lady should be covered; she should not shake hands with male strangers; she should not go outside without asking permission from her husband; she should not go to weddings where there is music; and she should not sit in public areas.”
The Black Sea areas are, touristically, much less developed. Most Europeans and Westerners tend to prefer to the west coasts of the Aegean and the Mediterranean in the south. There they can still wear as little (or as much) as they choose without any fear. 
However, if this latest trend spreads to other areas of the country, how would it affect tourism? That answer is obvious. Turkey could very well see a decrease in European and Western tourism. 

Even among the secularist local population, it could spell trouble, in a country that has already seen more than its share of civil unrest. Prime Minister Erdogan's policies have already inspired a lot of criticism and suspicion. Few Turks would care to receive religious instruction on their summer vacation at the seaside.

That, in turn, could be great economic news for Turkey's neighbor to the West, Greece... where Orthodox priests tend to stay closer to the churches in the summer.