Where They Live - Steve Willis '89
For many Americans, the Muslim world is a mystery as impenetrable as the night-black burkas worn by women in Afghanistan and other fundamentalist countries. But Tauheeda Yasin ’04 hopes that her work will lift the veil a bit. Thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship, Yasin now resides in Turkey, the crossroads of East and West, where she is exploring and documenting the development of an important new Muslim women’s fashion movement that reveals as much as it hides.
The style is tessettur (Turkish for “covering”), which may conjure images of women draped head to toe in, as Yasin describes it, “6th Century ninja-style black.” But tessettur is a product of secular Turkey, and even though most tessettur outfits feature the hijab-head covering-and fully hide a woman’s arms and legs (in accordance with Islamic tradition and, some believe, the Koran), the designs are contemporary and the colors bright. This hybrid style is as Western as it is Muslim and as modern as it is modest, but tessettur does have its critics.
Turkey, unlike many Muslim countries, is fiercely secular. There is no official state religion, and religious communities cannot form political parties. Turkish law also prohibits women from wearing hijab in schools and federal buildings (one politician, Merve Kavakci, was ejected from the Turkish Parliament for wearing hijab).
But tessettur remains popular and is the preferred dress of many educated and accomplished Turkish women. Tauheeda Yasin does not wear tessettur herself, but she does dress modestly and sometimes covers her head. “I believe,” she said, “that God created human beings, so he knows how we are wired. Sex is a basic human instinct but it has to be regulated; otherwise, people don’t know what to do with themselves and they lose focus on their purpose in life. I dress modestly because I want people to deal with me on an intellectual level and not on a sexual or lustful level. I need only to be sexy for myself and for my husband. Other men don’t need to be privy to that. In fact, they don’t have a right to it; only I do.”
As a Muslim who studied with Middle East specialists Fawaz Gerges and Kristin Sands at Sarah Lawrence, Yasin is also well aware of modesty’s dark side. “I do not,” she wrote in her Fulbright application, “wish to ignore or make light of the fact that many Muslim women are compelled into 'modest’ dress through force, but [I only wish] to explore the very personal and creative decisions many Muslim women make that reflect [their] aesthetic and religious concerns.”
While in Turkey, Yasin will interview and photograph women from many backgrounds-professional women in Istanbul, factory workers in the industrial city of Denizli and women living within the conservative cultural center of Eskisehir.
“I want to discuss the factors that contribute to the ways Turkish women cover, and the ways they view covering,” Yasin explains. “I want to understand these women’s sentiments, stories and beliefs concerning fashion.”
Her research will also lead her to some of Turkey’s leading tessettur designers, including Mustafa Karaduman of Tekbir Giyim, the largest line of tesettur clothing in Turkey, and Mehmet Sahin, a tesettur swimwear designer. She will also consult Turkish intellectuals, journalists and politicians, including Merve Kavakci, the woman ejected from the Turkish Parliament.
“Eventually,” she continues, “I plan to exhibit the photos and writing at my host universities [in Turkey] and the U.S. I’ll also post it on www.thefashions.org for teachers to use in their classrooms.”
“There are a host of misconceptions about Muslim women’s fashion,” Yasin wrote in her Fulbright application. “Turkish designers have merged fashion and religious modesty for various reasons that reflect increasing globalization, capitalism and modernity. Exploring the issues confronting Muslim societies as they move to the forefront of changing global politics is an excellent way to build cross-cultural understanding.”