Residents walking through the conservative Fatih neighborhood here were used to seeing a billboard with the Brazilian actress and model Adriana Lima advertising a hair-removal product — until, one recent day, she appeared in a full burqa. Someone had covered Lima head to toe in black spray. Next to the image, a mysterious hand had scrawled: “Do not commit indecency!”
All over Istanbul, billboards displaying women’s bodies were similarly vandalized, triggering spirited debates about the female form in public space. When I used my Twitter feed to condemn the vandalism, which I see as a form of censorship, the feedback from female followers was heated.
“This has nothing to do with censorship,” posted a young woman who wore a head scarf. “It’s a necessary undertaking to save the men from eye adultery.” It didn’t take long for another woman to respond: “Well, I am not going to cover myself so that your men can feel pious.”
It’s not the first time billboards with models have sparked controversy in Turkey. In 2007, the leading swimwear manufacturers complained that they were not allowed to hang billboards with female models in municipalities ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P. The Turkish media called it the “swimwear ban.” Zeki Baseskioglu, the head of the Zeki Triko Company, even published a photo of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — the founder of modern Turkey — in a bathing suit to protest the restriction. Underneath was printed, “We miss the sun.”
Today, there are rumors that, just as in 2007, ads for leading world brands are being censored. The daily newspaper Hurriyet ran an interview with an anonymous official admitting that the legs of models are chopped off in photos to meet municipal standards. The daily Sozcu pointed out that in Istanbul, there isn’t a single billboard where one can see in full a female model sporting a bathing suit.
Turkey is replete with political confrontations and cultural clashes, and way too often, unfortunately, the battleground is women’s bodies. Men of all political persuasions feel free to lecture women on how to dress and how to live.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given speeches urging every Turkish woman to give birth to at least three children, and the government provides interest-free loans to young couples to encourage early marriage. But female university students who get married and have children are less likely to join the work force after graduation.
Meanwhile, there has been little or no progress in reducing the number of child brides or cases of violence against women, both of which occur at an alarming rate. Turkey’s women are systematically told their worth lies in their roles as mothers and wives.
For decades, women with head scarves were not allowed to work in state offices — an unpopular ban that was introduced by the elite under Ataturk and was recently lifted by Erdogan’s A.K.P. The prohibition of head scarves at universities was reversed earlier. While the head scarf bans of the past were indefensible and undemocratic, today the issue is that women without head scarves are feeling a new social pressure.
On a recent sweltering day, I walked into a clothing store here and met the sales clerk, a blond woman in her 40s wearing ripped jeans, a stylish T-shirt and tattoos all over. A tattoo on her left hand drew my attention; it was the signature of Ataturk. In recent years, this signature has become an important political symbol, used in bumper stickers, flags, bandanas, jumpers and, increasingly, tattoos. It is widely used by those who are critical of the A.K.P. government or those who yearn for the old Kemalist establishment.
On her finger, there was a ring with a verse from the Quran. She noticed me looking and said: “I wear them together: Ataturk and the Quran. It’s my way of saying to those head-scarved ladies, I am not like you. I am a modern Muslim.”
She then told me a story: “The other day one of them scolds me for my ring. ‘Who are you to carry a verse from the Quran,’ she says. I say to her, ‘who are you?’ She says to me, ‘I hope you have the presence of mind to take the ring off when you go to the bathroom.’ I tell her, ‘how can you leave God outside the bathroom? Isn’t He everywhere?’ So we argued.”
So they argue. Turkey’s women clash over rings, rosettes and tattoos, not to mention head scarves and skirt lengths. As the country becomes more polarized, the cultural gap between those who support the government and those who oppose it widens. Many people retreat into ghettoes of the like-minded. There are high-walled settlements for the new conservative urban elite and high-walled settlements for the old secularist urban elite. There are hotels and spas for the religious, hotels and spas for the modernists.
The culture of coexistence is eroding fast. Those who once felt pushed to the edges of society have now created an environment where modern women like the shop clerk and many others feel more and more squeezed. An atmosphere of social inequality and intolerance persists. In cultural battles, women suffer more than men.
Just like their counterparts who were forced to discard their head scarves so many years ago, uncovered Turkish women are feeling uncomfortable and unwanted in their own country.
Elif Shafak is the author, most recently, of the novel Honor.