Curtain, veil and fez

May 8 2007


In the old, unenlightened days, before the emancipation of women, the custom [of Turkey] was adjusted to modern inventions in various ingenious ways. In Constantinople, for instance, when a Hungarian company installed trams, each tram was furnished with a sliding curtain – the women sitting in front of, and the men behind, this movable barrier. The two front rows of seats were always reserved for women; but the curtain used to be pushed farther back when the women passengers in the car outnumbered the men.

The first time that I rode in a tram on this visit [August 1929], I noticed at once that the curtain had disappeared and pointed this out to my wife and a lady who was with us. So we did as one would do in the West and all three sat down side by side – in the front row, as chance would have it. After we had travelled some distance, I was startled by a Turkish woman’s climbing into the car and peremptorily requesting me to surrender my seat before I had time to offer it. It appeared that the two front rows were reserved for women still and that, in seating myself in one of them, I had committed just as grave a breach of social etiquette as if I had done the same thing half-a-dozen years before, when the custom was symbolized by the curtain. I got up and, since all the back seats were now occupied by men, I was compelled to stand. Later, one of the men got out; but I forebore to take his place because, in the front of the car, there was still a woman standing. I beckoned to her not to miss her opportunity of securing the seat; but, alas, I had committed a breach of etiquette again. […] She looked wistfully at the empty seat. She made a movement towards it. Then she looked at the other women, seated in the two front rows, and remained standing where she was. It would be unladylike, indeed immodest, to plant herself in the middle of the men; so she submitted to the tyranny of the curtain. The curtain had become invisible, but it was still there, all the same.

Nevertheless, I believe, as I have suggested, that the cynic who took this story as a parable of the contemporary state of Turkey would overshoot the mark. It is not even characteristic of the contemporary position of women in Turkey; for this has no doubt altered profoundly in the course of the past dozen years – and the change is one that affects the whole life of the Turkish nation more deeply than any other single change could do. When we were staying at Constantinople with one of our Turkish friends, he invited some of his neighbours – husbands and wives – to dine; and after dinner the women discussed the revolutionary change in their social relations with the men which had occurred since they had grown up (and I should think they were none of them much more than forty years old). Here they were, dining and sitting together like any party of men and women in America or Europe (we were actually in Asia, since my friend lives in one of the suburbs on the east bank of the Bosphorus). It seemed all to be taken so much as a matter of course that you would never have guessed, had you not known, that manners had ever been different. Even they themselves seemed to find it an effort to recall how they had lived before the emancipation: how A had never seen the face of B’s wife (who to-night was sitting next to him at table), though B himself was A’s most intimate friend; or how B had to make as if he did not recognize A when A and A’s wife (veiled, of course) passed B in the street. As I listened, I felt that I was hearing the story of one of the great emancipations of history. For, though the women of ’Iraq and Persia have not yet unveiled and though the women of Syria timidly reverted to the veil after Syria parted company with Turkey in 1918, I feel sure that in the long run the Turkish example will be decisive for the whole Islamic world. A deed has been done here which cuts the roots of the old Islamic regime as far as the position of women is concerned.

Indeed, if freedom to wear what you like is a symbol of freedom in general, Turkish women to-day are distinctly freer than Turkish men. As you know, Turkish men to-day are compelled by law to wear hats with brims. The brim may be ever so small, but its significance is the same: even the narrowest brim would prevent you from touching the ground with your forehead, as religious custom prescribes, when you say your prayers.

The picture above must be one of the last in which Atatürk is shown wearing a fez. He is speaking to a crowd in Bursa in 1924. Later in that year he first appeared in public in a hat. Finally, the Hat Law of November 25 1925 abolished the fez.

The Sultanate was abolished in 1922, the Caliphate in 1924. The Turkish Western alphabet replaced Arabic script in 1928.

The women, more high-spirited or less remorselessly dragooned, have established their right to wear what they choose. There is a legend that the Government twice tried conclusions with the women and was twice discomfited. The first time, the Ghazi – wishing to modernize the backward province of Trebizond – ordered the women of Trebizond to give up their veils within ten days. The women of Trebizond persisted in wearing their veils, and the order had to be withdrawn. Thereupon the Government tried the other tack and ordered the women of Nigde to keep their veils on, but the women of Nigde threw their provincial manners to the winds and came out next morning with faces as bare as those of their sisters in Constantinople. After that, the Government gave up the battle and left the women to dress as they chose.

In my ignorant judgment, they have chosen well. The vast majority of them still wear the charshaf (the black wimple, covering the hair and neck but not the face, which was also worn in the West in the Middle Ages). They have not taken to the hat, for the same good reason that their husbands and brothers have not taken to drink: it is expensive and it is ugly. There is now no taboo in Turkey against hats for women; and I did see half-a-dozen Turkish women in hats, though most of these were in Angora and not in Constantinople. All the same, in this year 1929 in which I am writing, a Turkish woman in a hat is almost as rare a spectacle as a Turkish woman in a veil. I saw one woman veiled in Constantinople, and a few more in some rather remote villages up in the Taurus Mountains, when I was travelling by train from Angora to Aleppo. But I saw none anywhere else – not even at Koniya, traditionally the hearth and home of superstition and reaction.

As for the men, the prohibition of fezes and qalpaqs [calpacks are high-crowned felt or sheepskin hats] has been successfully enforced; and, on the rare occasions when you see anybody wearing either of these old-fashioned head-dresses in Turkey to-day, you will be safe in assuming that he is a foreigner – an Egyptian, perhaps, or a Tatar from one of the Muslim republics in the Soviet Union. In Bulgaria you still see the local Turkish peasants working in the fields in the Turkish traditional costume – the red fez with the embroidered yellow scarf wound round it – and it is curious, when you enter Turkey, to see this familiar figure of the Turk, as you know him, suddenly disappear from the landscape. It is equally curious, when you cross the next frontier, from Turkey into Syria, to see the fez and all the other accoutrements of the Oriental costume abruptly reappear. The impression is like that made by a Russian newspaper in which the censor has covered one paragraph with a pall of ink. There is legible print to right and left, above and below; and you know that there is also print, all the time, under the censor’s smudge. The print has merely been draped; it has not been erased. And so I believe it is with hats in Turkey. Many a self-consciously behatted man is still wearing an invisible fez.

I felt sure of this when I attended the Friday morning service in the Mosque of Mehmet the Conqueror. I chose this mosque because I knew that the quarter in which it stands used to be old-fashioned and devout and because, eight years ago, whenever I visited that mosque, it was always full of worshippers. Nor was I disappointed this time; for, as the service went on, the mosque steadily filled with the familiar rows of men of every class, forming up to do their prayer-drill; and from the back, where I was sitting, I watched to see what these “good Muslims” would do with their hats at prayer-time. Obviously they were all embarrassed by their hats; and, since no convention had as yet been established for solving the problem, each man dealt with it in his own way. Some simply twisted the hat about till the peak hung down over the nape of the neck, in the fashion of motor-bicyclists in England before they took to the beret. Others, whose hats had brims all round, took them off and sat bareheaded as if the mosque had been a church. (The effect was rather shocking.) Others took their hats off and then tied their handkerchiefs round their heads. Others, again, more scrupulous or more elegant than their neighbours, produced little skull-caps out of their pockets and changed from their hats into these. On the whole, I felt about the men just what I did not feel about the women. I felt that the external change, which made so strong an impression on the eye, was something imposed by force that went against the grain. It did not seem to me to be an outward and visible sign of any corresponding spiritual change within. The only Turkish men I ever saw who looked as if they were enjoying the experience of wearing hats were a party of young fellows on a visit from Turkey to a Turkish village just inside the Syrian frontier. These young men were evidently feeling much superior to their country cousins who had not yet discarded the fez.


A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that, probably, Asia (of New York)

4 Responses to “Curtain, veil and fez”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Mahmud II (1808-39) began the series of modernisations which partially reformed the Ottoman state in the nineteenth century. His reign was also the period of Muhammad Ali’s reforms in Egypt.

    One of Mahmud’s reforms was the introduction of a Greek hat, the fez, in 1826.

    So what Atatürk did to the fez in 1925 mirrored what Mahmud II had done to the turban a hundred years earlier. In both cases, a form of headdress was abolished or discouraged by state decree to make way for one deemed to be more modern. Perhaps the turban will come back in 2026.

    Egyptians stopped wearing the fez under Nasser; they had continued to wear it under King Farouk.

  2. […] the past still maintain an ascendancy over the symptoms of “Westernization.” It is in vain that the fez and the veil have been banished from Constantinople; for, so long as that line of domes and minarets crowns the […]

  3. […] this post on the abolition of the fez. Also the background to modern Turkey up to 1917 in the series of posts […]

  4. […] was questioned since the beginning: in “A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen,” Toynbee wrote of a 1929 visit to Turkey right at the height of enthusiasm for the revolution. But even then he […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s