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Of skirts and scarves

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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“I am a child of the Kamalist revolution”, declared 92-year-old Muazzez İlmiye Çığ of Turkey. Ms. Cig, an expert on Sumer, observed in her book My Reactions as a Citizen, that Islamic-style head scarves date back more than 5,000 years - several millennia before the birth of Islam - and were worn by priestesses who initiated young men into sex. As if that was not enough of a red rag before a bull, she went on to chide the Prime Minister’s wife for wearing a headscarf in public, and – in case anyone had missed the point - also criticized, “in quite a provocative style” according to the Turkish Daily News, the widespread practice among conservative Turks to marry in a religious ceremony performed by an imam, which the law does not recognize.


This puerile kerfuffle over skirts and scarves conceals more than it reveals. When the Muslim world was confronted by the west, and reduced to relative powerlessness, thinking and educated Muslims had recourse to other, secular religions: nationalism and Marxism. For a religious people, it was easier to choose another religion in secular costume than to renounce religion altogether. That nationalism and Marxism are religions has been amply demonstrated by Ninian Smart (Ninian Smart ,The World’s Religions, Engleood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp 10 – 25). In a previous article(http://www.opednews.com/articles/genera_iftekhar_070307_the_two_religions_of.htm), I discussed the fact that religions have seven dimensions – the ritual, the ethical, the narrative, the material, the emotional, the doctrinal and the institutional – and that Marxism and nationalism share all seven.


Disloyalty to Islam and the ummah, the community of Muslims, was a live option only twice in the history of the faith – when the faith was being established and after the colonial encounter. After the encounter, the price of loyalty kept on rising – that is to say, one gave up more in terms of foregone benefits. In economic jargon, the opportunity cost of loyalty to Islam went up and up.  (This is even truer today, especially since 9/11: even before the event, the Turks purchased benefits from America by allying itself with Israel; indeed, the United States punishes severely any loyalty to the Palestinians, as Iran has known since the revolution and might learn a more bitter lesson in the near future.) 

 The response was largely irrational, unlike that of the Japanese, who made a clear distinction between western ways and western things. They adopted some of the former, but only incidentally. With Muslims, the superficials counted for more; a wrenching change like that of the Meiji Restoration was out of the question: the masses would have never gone along, such was the claim of Islam to their loyalty.  Even China adopted nationalism and Marxism – both religions – and plumped for civil war (who can forget the last emperor cutting off his pigtail in the film by Bernardo Bertolucci: yet nobody has associated the Beatles’ long hair with inefficiency and backwardness!). While the Communists are beginning to give up their creed, the Taiwanese seem to be growing more pious every year.      

The irrational element can be seen in the adoption of the principle of “secularism” (along with nationalism!) in the constitution. Ataturk abolished religious courts and schools, and adopted a purely non-Islamic system of family law; substituted the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in writing; adopted the Gregorian calendar that had been jointly used with the Hijrī calendar since 1917; replaced Friday by Sunday as the weekly holiday; adopted – no, I’m not making this up - surnames, and, the crowning touch, abolished the fez. For good measure, the wearing of clerical garb outside places of worship was forbidden.


And what about economics? How was the clerical garb or the Arabic alphabet retraining national income growth?  Ataturk adopted ”statism”: here, of course, was the nub. The mistake that the Chinese and Indians were to make, Ataturk anticipated.  Even today, his legacy stands: the economy remains weak, with 30% of GDP generated in the region around Istanbul and Ankara. In the eastern villages, one sees mud-roofed single-storey structures with improvised windows; water is drawn from wells and outside the doors there’s dung for fuel and straw for animals heaped up. In the richest part of Turkey, income per head is six times that in the poorest. And within Europe, Turkey has the lowest income per head (even lower than that of the newly admitted states). It may no longer be the sick man of Europe, but it is certainly the poor man of Europe.

 In Bangladesh, too, we adopted similar measures, until a military strongman, General Zia-ur-Rahman, came along and reversed the changes. He privatized formerly nationalized firms and struck off the secularism clause in the constitution in favour of Islam. The second military strongman, General Ershad, went further along these lines. Neither of these military generals showed the remotest interest in women’s headgear or their midriff, in skullcaps or the Hijri calendar, which coexisted peaceably with the Gregorian as well as the local Bengali calendar. We shall see below that even greater levels of sanity were displayed by two other Muslim rulers in East Asia   

Yet nationalism plays a role among the elite: and its puerile manifestation can be seen in such contests as that between the saree and the shalwar-kameez (Bangladesh is still a long way from the mini-skirt, which I first saw in Istanbul en route to London in 1970). The Islamists resent the saree, which, they aver, reveals too much and is the dress worn across the border by Hindu women; the nationalists deplore the shalwar-kameez, which is worn by the Muslim state of Pakistan, from which we broke away: respect for the saree is all of a piece with respect for Bengali, which is spoken in Indian West Bengal, where women wear the saree. To appreciate how childlike these feelings run, let me tell you about a relative of mine who was made manageress of a bank branch. No sooner had she been promoted than she made it mandatory for all women to wear a saree, and never shalwar-kameez! At Manarat School, the authorities insist that girls wear hijab, while at Green Herald International School, run by Catholic nuns, girls must wear skirts. Holy Cross School, run by a different order of nuns, and Viqaroonnessa Noon School, a local school, have sensible policies in this regard: uniforms for girls consist of shalwar-kameez, for no one, not even nationalists, expect young girls to wear a saree. Of course, for most men and women, the subject is a non-issue, but the nationalists and the Islamists make noises so loud, you have to hear.      

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The ritual dimension of nationalism was pushed to the extreme by the Shah of Iran: the Shah saw himself as heir to the kings of ancient Iran, and in 1971 held a celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. In 1976 he replaced the Islamic calendar with an “imperial” calendar, which began with the foundation of the Persian Empire more than 25 centuries earlier. These actions were viewed as anti-Islamic and resulted in religious opposition. Again, as in Turkey, a narrow elite among women wore skirts, and the majority wore headscarves. Unlike Ataturk, however, the Shah never appeared as a hero who had saved his country from the western powers. Most Iranians – except the elite surrounding him – were happy to see him go.   

What is strange in all these nationalisms is the indisputable fact of foreign inspiration: in Bangladesh, inspiration is drawn from India and the west, in Turkey from Europe, in Iran under the Shah, from America. Nationalism, therefore, never settled in any of these places, but remained an exotic import, always looking beyond the border for confirmation and acknowledgement: a glaring contradiction, if ever there was one.      

 A further contradiction is the ability to subscribe to antithetical doctrines at the same time: I have known people who were simultaneously nationalists, Marxists and democracts! How they managed to reconcile dialectical materialism with the worship of the people and their right to vote along non-Marxist lines has presented a constant conundrum, one that I have never been able to resolve. The explanation clearly lies in the fact that these were foreign imports, ill-digested and unassimilated, a ‘western’ cocktail as much of the Molotov sort as of the more inebriating variety.      

The contrast with Indonesia and Malaysia is striking: none of these countries focused on such superficial items as the length of the beard, or the shape of the hat, or the length of the skirt or headscarf (the state of Kelantan, where such things count for a great deal, is not run by the United Malay National Organisation, or UMNO, that rules the centre). After Sukarno’s disastrous tryst with Marxism, Suharto focused exclusively on getting the economy right. In 1960, life expectancy at birth had been 41 years; by 1993, it was 63; infant mortality per thousand live births had been 139; in 1993, it was 56.


According to the World Bank report “The East Asian Miracle” (1993), “Since 1960, the HPAEs [high-performing Asian economies] have grown more than twice as fast as the rest of East Asia, roughly three times as fast as Latin America and South Asia, and five times faster than sub-Saharan Africa. They also significantly outperformed the industrial economies and the oil-rich Middle East-North Africa region [this includes Iran]. Between 1960 and 1985, real income per capita increased more than four times in Japan and the Four Tigers [Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan]  and more than doubled in the Southeast Asia NIEs [newly industrialising economies: Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand]. If growth were randomly distributed, there is roughly one chance in ten thousand that success would have been so regionally concentrated.” The report further observes: “The HPAEs are the only economies that have high growth and declining inequality (page 2). (italics original)” It has been suggested by Adrian Leftwich, in his book Democracy and Development, that Indonesia under Suharto was run by a mere 1,000 people.

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Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia could have afforded nationalism – indeed none of these Muslim countries discussed so far could, but they chose ideology over economics. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the Chinese minority has played an overwhelming role in this rapid growth rate. Their status was not always lofty: they had been described as the ‘pariah entrepreneur”, but they are now anything but. By eschewing ideology, including and especially democracy and nationalism, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments were able to mobilise Chinese savings and entrepreneurial skills for the improvement of the whole economy. 

Both Suharto and Mahathir were practical men who focussed on real issues – growth, infrastructure, investment, exports, human capital – and not on skirts and fez’s, sarees or shalwar-kammeezs.  For eschewing nationalism, they were spared such distractions as the Kurdish separatist movement or the Islamic revolution of Iran. (The Acehnese’s small-scale rebellion seems to be an earlier bug retained.)     

 And as for the 92-year-old child of the Kamalist revolution, Muazzez İlmiye Çığ of Turkey, we have to observe that, while she may have a firm grasp on Sumerian sexual rituals, she needs to bone up on contemporary economic history.


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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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