A Modern-Day Harem: Tight Shirts, Bright Lipstick, and a Touch of Feminism

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 2 2013 7:24 AM

The Versace Harem

A group of Muslim women with tight shirts, bright lipstick, a feminist mission, and total devotion to a creationist guru.

The women of Turkey's "Building Bridges"
From left, the women of Turkey's Building Bridges: Ebru, Ece, Aysegul (who occasionally joins the four hosts on their show), Aylin, and Ceylan

Courtesy of A9 TV

I first agreed to meet Ece, Ceylan, Aylin, and Ebru because I didn't really believe they existed. They host the Turkish talk show Building Bridges and had recently gotten some attention, but not for the interviews. The women look astonishing. They are mostly bottle blonds, save for Ece, who has raven hair. Neon lipstick gives their lips a whole extra dimension. They coordinate outfits. At one of our meetings, they wore brightly colored satin pantsuits and T-shirts with designer brand names that stretched over their chests. What they talk about on Building Bridges—interfaith dialogue, women and Islam, the greatness of Turkey—isn't particularly sexy, but their outfits are designed to make up for that. They are also devout Muslims—conservative, even—a supposed contradiction that is also the show’s allure.

Guests often appear—usually by Skype—with their eyebrows arched in the manner of a serious person certain he is the victim of a practical joke. But they proceed. The women sweetly dare the guests to suggest the hosts are anything but what they claim to be—activists, political commentators, Muslims—because of how they dress. During one interview, which I observed in the studio, Ceylan right away asked a German diplomat if a "true religious education" could "combat bigotry."

The reaction in the Turkish media and among viewers of the show has been mostly centered on the weirdness of the program and its hosts, and the weirdness runs deep. A9, the television channel that broadcasts Building Bridges, is owned by Adnan Oktar, a once-prominent Turkish theologian known best for his ardent preaching of Islamic creationism and, more controversially, for the strong allegiance of his followers. The women of Building Bridges are among his cohort, unabashed in their allegiance to him, and his reputation is their reputation. Oktar has lately faded from the public eye after a series of controversies. The most calamitous of these was a book called The Holocaust Deception,  published in 1996 under Oktar's pen name, Harun Yahya. Oktar vehemently denied having written it—and to me when I asked him—but the association lingered.

Ece, Ceylan, Ebru, and Aylin are almost certainly marketing tools for his comeback. He calls them his "kittens" and, on other shows, offers their beauty as evidence of Islamic creationism. The Quran, Oktar says, dictates that Muslims recreate paradise on Earth; his "kittens" are proof that paradise is within reach. We met a few times when I visited A9, and he spoke mostly about creationism, his reputation, the treachery of most journalists, and female looks (often, in spite of my protestations, mine). He liked to pinch my cheek. His sizable audience shows either that his ideas about creationism are having an impact or that sex sells pretty much anything.

Oktar's women were not always so salacious. When he first began canvassing universities in the 1980s—spreading ideas of a "modern" Islam—he de-emphasized the headscarf but encouraged women to be demure. "There is nothing in the Quran that says women have to cover their head," Oktar told me during a meeting at A9, where Ece sat as translator. "In fact, it says that women should dress beautifully, wear beautiful jewelry. If you want to wear the hijab, you can wear it like that—as style, as jewelry, as fashion, but not as a commandment of Allah." Back then, Oktar was happily in the public eye, and his followers worked behind the scenes. As his star faded, his ideas got more eccentric, and so did the women. They now mostly appear as an on-camera cheer squad, happily agreeing with his scientific theories. But they also have some theories of their own. “Some people only see us on Adnan's show,” Ceylan told me, “so they don't know whether we're opinionated or just blond women.”

In this lineup, Building Bridges is serious—although that conclusion might require an immersion in A9, a channel that includes a show called Cute Animals. (Cute animals, like beautiful women, are evidence of creationism.) Ceylan and her co-hosts are used to being known only for their association with Oktar—and all the accompanying rumors about the nature of that relationship—but the Building Bridges women have their own identities. They are ambitious and genuinely smart, plucked from Turkey's top universities, and they think they have something real to say about the future of women in an increasingly Muslim society. All that makeup constitutes a very hard sell.

Their generation watched Turkey change under an Islamist governing party, the AKP. Religion was eased back into the public sphere, and the "kittens" recognized that Turks accustomed to a secular nation might feel anxious about this new trend. They remembered having similar anxieties during their own religious metamorphosis.

To Turkish women, the four women come off as pious and modern; to Turkish men, pious and sexy. To a Western audience, they seem more relatable; to a Turkish one, they seem to come from the religious bourgeoisie. They are smart but unthreatening, with voices so calm they are almost robotic. They are Stepford-level nice. They are, after years of being known mostly by rumors emanating from Oktar's villa, freed by their presence on television, and when I met with them, they seemed a little giddy. They were trying to use their new positions as TV personalities to branch out into side projects like an interfaith conference and a petition for Syrian refugees. Because these did not involve Oktar, they seemed to constitute small rebellions. I began to visit them because I liked them and because I was fascinated; theirs was a high-octane identity crisis.

I quickly came to view their hypersexualization as a reaction—albeit an extreme one—to the prejudices that many Muslim women face. And also as feminist, maybe even radical, given the context. Muslim women, Ece said, "should not have opinions. They should not talk about politics. They should not be good-looking. They should be behind their husbands." Aylin chimed in, "You can't even look at their faces. They are so scared." Ceylan said, "They are in a burqa. They are not educated." Ebru finished, "People look at us and say, 'You can't be Muslims. Muslims cannot look like that.' " It's unclear to what extent the prejudices they strive to reject are also their own.

They frequently mentioned the headscarf, and their emphasis on this one issue is key to explaining their exhibitionism. Turkish secularism was supposed to grant women their liberation, and banning the headscarf was evidence of gender equality. While some Turkish feminists defended their right to dress as they please, others bid the scarf good riddance. With the AKP lobbying to fully lift the ban, it remains a battlefield.

Anthropologist Jenny White, in her new book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, calls the headscarf an "emblem of fear." The fear is of religion pulling Turkey—presently enjoying economic and political prominence—backward. As a symbol, the headscarf is openly condemned. White describes a 2010 anti-AKP ad, which accuses covered women of betraying the country. The ad "graphically demonstrates a liberal but politically disengaged Turkish woman … becoming immured in a black veil as Turkey turns to Iran around her."

This is the kind of rhetoric Ece and her co-hosts grew up with, and their current look seems like an attempt to synthesize patriotism and faith. Rejecting the headscarf is crucial to that formula. Years later, in their enthusiasm, they overcompensated with peroxide.

But their primary rebellion is not against conservative Islam. It is against Turkish secularism. The Quran, they say, empowers women; secularism, ironically, despite its supposedly more feminist message, relegates women to traditional roles. Their tight clothes feel like a very blunt way of confronting sexual taboos and attributing them to Turkish society, not Islam.

In their attempt to normalize Muslim sexuality, they are in good company. Pinar Ilkkaracan, a Turkish sociologist and co-founder of the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies was also raised in a secular home but still encountered discrimination. "People thought that just because I'm Muslim I'm a victim, that I'm poor, that I'm oppressed," Ilkkaracan told me. Like Ece, she found feminism in the Quran and hadith (Mohammed's teachings), both in examples of powerful women and clearly given rights, such as pleasure, contraception, and divorce. “There is nothing in the Quran that says that sexuality is a sin,” she said. Sex, she told me, is dealt with more frankly in the Quran than it is in Turkey's schools. After these initial discoveries, Ilkkaracan began to focus on sexuality and Islam. She also became a practicing Muslim.

Ilkkaracan understands the frustration of being misunderstood, so she also understands the appeal of shock value. But she does not condone it. "Many covered women say the same things," she said. "They say that Islam in its essence does not discriminate against women. But this is not sexy. If [Oktar's] women said the same thing but in decent clothes, they wouldn't get as much attention."

Her view—it's a common one—is that the “kittens” are only replacing the hijab with a bawdy male fantasy. A quick Google search reveals websites deriding them as "sluts" and "disgusting." To explain why these women, one of whom attended the university where Ilkkaracan teaches, would resort to hypersexuality as a means of liberating Muslim women, Ilkkaracan was diplomatic: "In Turkey, two totally opposite things can happen at the same time." 

But Turkey is of secondary importance to the women. They are more concerned with reaching a Western audience. The Building Bridges studio features a backdrop of London's Millennium Bridge. They speak in English. They assume that stereotypes against Muslim women in the West, America in particular, are the crudest and most deeply held. “Ninety percent of Americans can't find Iraq on a map,” Ceylan said. “But any Turk can find America. They could find New York City.” For these Muslim women, being called "sluts" is better than being called "terrorists."

The A9 villa is tucked behind ivy-covered walls, protected by three locked doors and security cameras. Stone cherubs line the walkway, and the hallway is wallpapered with a tropical beach scene, hinting at the fantasy to come. Ece politely refused to meet me anywhere else. As liberated as she may look, she is cloistered. Whatever the reasons, the biggest contradiction of all may be Ece's devotion to one man and that man’s interpretation of the Quran. Because of this it's impossible to know what she or any of the “kittens” really believe. She is aware of what people assume when they look at her. Sex is a tool, but once used, it can turn on you.

I asked about their makeup. Any tips? But Ece only frowned. "Jenna," she said, "we are not only how we look."

Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.