21 Eylül 2011 Çarşamba

The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling, Book Review

There is no doubt that Nilüfer Göle’s book The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling, has greatly analyzed the Turkish Modernization which started from the early 19th century to the onwards, from the perspective of ‘women’ by taking the policies, tendencies, movements that have affected the woman to the basis. I consider her work as a feministic one and in my opinion it is the most useful method on issue of “veiling”. At the first glance Göle seems to be primarily studying the veiling issue in her work, however, when we look at her method of studying it, we see that she is actually making an experiment on two several things like: the nature and the aim of veiling in Turkey, the relationship between ‘veiling status of women’ (veiled or not) and level of modernization (high or low) –this greatly shows her idea that the women is the representation of civilization and modernization in modern era – , also the how the Islamist demand on the image of veiling has changed etc. In her work she puts “the kinds of women” in Turkey in two categories which are simultaneously affecting each other: women in imaginations (the expectations of ideologies on women’s lifestyle) and women in reality.

The modernist ideology in westernizer sense, Kemalism in particular, discourses a model of women as highly-educated, socialized and secular (should attend to social life, should see no sex difference between men and women, should be fulfilling the ‘needs’ of westernism and ) , working, unveiled etc. The modernist ideology in conservative Islamist sense, on the other hand, demands for just the opposite model of women, a kind of traditional style. Although we observe these models in contemporary Turkish society, we cannot conclude that these are the only models of women in Turkey. In fact, there is one model of women in Turkey that practices a kind of a hybrid style and they represent what Göle calls The Forbidden Modern, which is the re-interpretation of Islamism in Modern era. They wear hijab, fulfill the needs of their religion, also they go to university, work and appear in the social life.

Then, the concepts of forbidden and modern women have changed with this hybrid style, because it was partially opposing but partially practicing the both of the models at a time, in other words what is forbidden Islamist ideology is different than this group’s practice as what is modern for Westernizer ideology is different for them, because of this they are refused from both ideologies.

The biggest problem of modernity is the understanding of “if one thing is x, -x can’t be the x” which is in this case: “if modern women are unveiled, then the veiled women are not modern per se.” or “if we want to be modern and civilized then there is no place for veiling”. Göle denies such idea and she shows us the concrete examples of the possibility: Hijab wearing students who are critical, radical, political, researcher, active in social life and go to university. According to her participant observatory work with hijab-wearing university students; the veiling has many meanings for them, (1) it has both political and theological side (2) the forbidden modern is mainly occurred with urbanization (3) they regret and criticize the “traditional women” and many traditions that create traditional women.

Veiling with hijab has more than one aim, as she found out it is political and theological. The theological aim of veiling is as clear as the water: And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers that you might succeed.” (An-Noor: 31) The private parts of the women body must be covered to not attract the men. The political aim of veiling, on the other hand, is not same as the left-conservatives’ (Kemalists) view: “They wear hijab because of the political party says it so, they are wearing it because of the patriarchy, by force and oppression”. Hijab, in contrast, is political because of being an indicator of one’s political ideology that is Islamism (Not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that the Islamism as they live – AKP kind of represents that)

It is occurred with the urbanization, especially after big emigrations in Turkey, because the concept and the way of veiling in rural areas in Anatolia are different than in metropolises. Mostly, Anatolian women have never lived Islam in the radical ways, they do cover their heads with different type of cloth and in different way (what portion of the head is covered), moreover, these types (not its patterns, but the length) and ways are differing according to the culture of region. Therefore, their veiling is much related to religiosity then religion, the hijab, then again, in terms of its type and way is universal. The other evident why hijab is related to urbanization is that, we have not seen any debate on hijab until the mid and late-80’s Turkey; it is the time when urbanization has started to increase greater than before, the headscarf ban had issued at this decade as well. Besides all of these a girl who attended to Göle’s research reports that: I was in Imam Hatip when I was going to secondary school, I was covering my head at school, but at home I was not covering it even if there is a man… But I didn’t cover my head in Eskişehir. I came to Istanbul for high school, and then in University I started to wear hijab and jilbāb.” (Göle 2010: 123)

As Göle argued and I support, hijab wearing university students are extremely criticizing, denying and refusing the traditional women. The hijab wearing university students sees them as back warded and illiterate, because of not questioning and researching the religion by going deep into the roots (Quran, Hadiths, and Fiqh etc.) Their religiosity is considered by them as superficial, hearsay and somehow “cultural”. They both damage the image of women and religious women being and doing so. They only stay in the house, have only primary education (even lack of education), do what their husband says and grow their children. The hijab wearing students are also critical of some “traditional” ideas such as; polygamy, ‘women shouldn’t attend too much in social life’, ‘housewifery is the best work for a women’ etc. These are of course not in Islam, they say, they are just the patriarchal misinterpretations of it. In my opinion, this ideology has greatly grown in Turkey that even the right-conservative Islamist parties are today supporting it.

Briefly, Göle shows us that Islam and Islamic life is not an obstacle on the way to modernism. A country and its members can be modern and the members can practice their religion –or tradition– with no big interruptions to their modernity. Further, such kind of life style has come up with the birth of modernization of Turkey; it is actually the product of it. For instance; urbanization is modern, political view of the hijab shows the modernization, the investigator characteristic of hijab wearing students also shows their rational and positivist worldview of these women. In short, Göle tells us that; the modernism is not only exists in the appearance, but it exists also in the minds, which I strongly agree. The other interesting point in the book is that, she shows us that something that is attributed to women is always debated, subjected and tried to be controlled mostly by man, even from those who supported the westernizer modernism – I think this is significantly showing the other fail of Kemalist modernism-. Also I find her method of taking her work to the reality –applied study and participant observation technique- really well, because the sociology is not only working with theories from the table. But, I think she should put the fact of “interest” in the book because since the modern world is functioning as rational the calculability and the economic interest has become important, and to me, all these debates going on around veiling is caused by the fear of one group losing their interest. If the new minds with different ideologies would get the means of power thanks to their self-entrepreneurship, knowledge and talents, the other group of people will lose their power and interest. Because of this they always make a big deal from veiling: the hijab is just the representation of the one power in deed.


1. Göle, N. (2010). Modern Mahrem: Medeniyet ve Örtünme. Istanbul: Metis. (Original work published 1991)

2. The Qur'an: English Translation with Parallel Arabic Text. (2010). London: Oxford University Press. 24:31 verse.

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