Turkish Women's Magazine Searches for Intersection of Islam and Fashion

The previously little-known magazine has begun outselling Vogue and Elle here, sparking a national debate over whether fashion and Islam can coexist
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The Turkish women's magazine Âlâ first gained notice in the summer of 2011 by putting the most controversial piece of fabric in Turkey, the Islamic headscarf, on its cover. Four months later, Turkish secularists and traditional Muslims alike are still debating: Can fashion and Islam comfortably coexist?

The brainchild of advertising agency account executives Mehmet Volkan Atay and Burak Birer, Âlâ (Beautiful Lifestyle) targets Turkey's growing number of observant Muslim women with a monthly selection of clothing advice, interviews with Muslim designers and businesswomen, travel tips and feature stories. It claims that its circulation has quadrupled to 40,000 copies since the first edition hit newsstands last July, and is widely reported by Turkish media already to have surpassed sales of Vogue and Elle.

But don't tag it as an Islamic Vogue. Âlâ Art Director Esra Sezis asserts that that the notion of Islamic fashion contradicts the Islamic idea of women modestly covering their bodies. "[The magazine] is only meant to be a helping guide for conservative women -- where can they shop, what clothes can they combine,'" Sezis said in an August 20 interview with the Turkish daily Sabah. "[I]n short, there cannot be Islamic fashion; just details."

In online social media forums, critics nonetheless claim that the glossy, high-end monthly tries to "westernize the idea of modest Islamic dress," and tries to turn veiled women into the prototype of Vogue-reading, spend-thrift fashion victims; concepts contrary to Islamic ideals. The magazine features photos of both professional models and ordinary readers in Islamic garments.

"To try and squeeze modest Islamic dress into fashion patterns is as absurd as trying to squeeze Islam into a Western lifestyle", writes journalist Aysegül Genç in the monthly Genç Magazine. "If this magazine, already contributing to ongoing degeneration, would like to minimalize the damage it will cause, it has to think as much about how to be a beautiful veiled girl as it has to find answers to the question of how to be a veiled girl with a personality."

Âlâ editors declined to speak with me about the debate over its content.

The chief executive officer of Tekbir Giyim, one of Turkey's largest textile companies catering solely to veiled women and the first to organize fashion shows with veiled models in 1992, makes the argument, however, that fashion and Islam are not mutually exclusive.

"Our religion and the Koran dictate how to dress modestly and which parts of the body need to be covered up. But that is the only constant: designs and patterns change and evolve, and as long as these changes remain in accord with religious rules, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that," commented Mustafa Karaduman.

Whether or not, strictly speaking, it covers fashion, Âlâ appears to have found a market. The magazine commands more than 90,000 Facebook followers and has launched an edition in Germany to cater to Turkish readers in Western Europe, too.

In a pre-launch survey run by the magazine with 15,000 Turkish women who wear Islamic head-coverings, the magazine found that "[t]he biggest problem for conservative women was the absence of communication between Islamic textile producers and their target group," Mehmet Volkan Atay told the Turkish daily Radikal. "They said: 'Why does nobody get in touch with us?'"

Large Turkish cities, such as Istanbul, are dotted with Islamic clothing stores, but their number depends highly on the neighborhood; more conservative Istanbul districts such as Fatih, for example, offer a variety of boutiques for Islamic women, but non-Islamic-oriented clothing stores easily dominate elsewhere.

Atay underlines, though, that the Islamic clothing market is not an island unto itself. Most covered women interviewed reported not liking to shop in stores selling only Islamic clothing. Younger women, in particular, prefer to mix and match, he said.

Tekbir Giyim's Mustafa Karaduman asserts that his company answers that demand, as promoted by Âlâ. "Our designers have been interviewed in Âlâ. We are not opposed to designing clothes that appeal to younger veiled women, as long as they correspond with religious rules."

Now, some non-Islamic-clothing companies appear to be picking up on the trend, too, claimed Atay. "Textile companies outside Islamic clothing started to ask for reports. They will design items that cater to veiled women," he told Radikal. "They understand that they can no longer ignore the large group of veiled women, all of which are potential customers." Atay did not provide names of the companies.

Turkish gender studies specialist Feyza Akinerdem, agrees that Âlâ is far from the Vogue of Islamic clothing. What stands out the most about the publication is that the veiled young women featured in its pages "display self-esteem," she commented in a blog, Erkan's Field Diary, on Turkey-related issues.

"Even if the women posing for the magazine embrace the culture of consumption, I did not see the terrible feeling of being 'different' than everybody else in the streets in their eyes," Akinerdem wrote.

Arguably, for Âlâ, that means mission accomplished.

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Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

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