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Islamic-Style Swimsuits Give Women Freedom to Dive In

A commentator's criticism of the outfits stirs debate in Turkey, where many wear Western fashions, and some even go topless.

August 21, 2005|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Reha Muhtar, a popular Turkish writer, was vacationing on Turkey's Aegean coast when he saw two young women, hair tucked under hoods, bodies cloaked in ankle-length outfits, diving off an expensive yacht.

"Not in all my years had I ever seen anything quite so bizarre," Muhtar wrote in a recent column in the daily Sabah newspaper.

The women were wearing Islamic-style swimwear, which is becoming increasingly popular among Muslim women who want to bathe without baring their flesh. The outfit consists of a full body suit and hood that is pulled over a tightly fitted bonnet. A long vest completes the ensemble.

Muhtar's column has touched off a debate about the merits of such outfits in a country where most women wear Western-style swimwear, and some even go topless.

Yet the flurry of discussion has remained free of the politics engulfing the Islamic-style head scarf, which is banned in all Turkish government institutions and schools as a symbol of religious militancy. Rather, the emphasis has been on style.

"Silly, tasteless and weird," commentator Ahmet Hakan wrote in the daily Hurriyet.

Hakan's assertion that modest women should forgo swimming rather than make themselves ridiculous in such gear has angered some conservatives. Mustafa Karaduman, founder of Turkey's biggest Islamic-style fashion chain, Tekbir Giyim, or God Is Great Clothing, went so far as to suggest that Hakan was not a good Muslim.

All of this is welcome publicity for Mehmet Sahin, who while attending law school in 1993 designed his first modest bathing suit -- not for women, but men.

"As a pious Muslim, I wanted to wear a bathing costume that did not cling to my genitals," he said in a recent interview. His baggy, mid-calf-length shorts became an instant hit with similarly religious-minded students. Sahin, who abandoned law, has since branched out into women's swimwear and now commands the country's largest Islamic swimwear empire, Hasema. His customers include the Turkish foreign minister's wife, Hayrunnisa Gul.

Sahin's latest collection features special material that lets the sun through. "Customers who want a tan can now get one without undressing," Sahin said.

Sociologists say the success of Islamic-style fashion is closely linked to the surge in upward mobility of religious Turks. "For this new Islamic bourgeoisie, clothes have increasingly become a vehicle for asserting status rather than piety," said Jenny B. White, an anthropologist at Boston University who has written extensively on Islam in Turkey.

Designer head scarves have become ubiquitous in such circles. Favored by the wife of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the British designer Burberry, with its trademark plaid print, is among the most popular.

It is not just the garment industry that is cashing in. Business is booming at a string of liquor-free hotels with segregated beaches along Turkey's coast.

Away from prying male eyes, women can be seen sunning themselves in the most daring bikinis at such establishments.

Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an Islamic theologian and advocate of women's rights, notes that such resorts are unaffordable for most Turks.

Islamic-style bathing suits give religiously observant Turks the freedom to enjoy the country's beaches "just like any other citizen," she said.

Tuksal, who owns three Hasema swimsuits, insists that they are very comfortable. "I can move around freely," she said. "What is more, I think they are perfectly aesthetic."

They can also be downright sexy, fashion photographer Zeynel Abidin Aggul said. The photographer told the newspaper Sabah during a recent photo shoot. "Wherever there are women, there is eroticism. A bit of ankle ... a pair of eyes is all it takes."

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