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.

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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.

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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 piece was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.