Veiled Bodies of Muslim Nonnormative Sexualities: Notes from a Youth Ethnography in Turkey

In the majority of research, veiling or wearing the headscarf in Turkey has been studied in terms of perceptions, practices, and meanings. The literature on veiling provides diverse accounts of the cultural, political, and religious aspects of veiling. To date, veiling in Turkey has been assumed to be an experience exclusive to cis-heterosexual women. With this blog article, however, I would like to draw attention to queer and trans individuals’ veiling experiences in Turkey, thereby raising some themes that will call into question hegemonic understandings of veiling. Based upon my research participants’ statements, I discern two crucial red lines that seem to define the experiences of veiling and LGBTQ+ identities in Turkey: the symbolic appropriation of the veil by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the normatively gendered meanings attached to the practices of veiling in Turkey.

Muslima with rainbow headscarf

Veiling and the AKP government

From the date of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey to its current incarnation under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) government, veiling in Turkey has been variously associated with different symbols and political meanings. In the mid-1980s, the ban on veiling in universities and public institutions imposed a political significance onto veiling in Turkey. The politicization of veiling continued when the military memorandum of February 28, 1997 declared that all Islamic activities and discourses in politics were a threat to the secular regime of the Republic of Turkey. Following her election to parliament in 1999, Merve Kavakçı, was not permitted to take her oath to the Grand National Assembly because she insisted on wearing her headscarf during the ceremony. Her act of trying to do so provoked strong critique from other parliament members. It was around that time that veiling came to be understood as a symbol of political Islam in Turkey, and as such was suppressed until the electoral success of the AKP government in 2002. After a decade in power, the AKP government lifted the headscarf ban in 2013. Since then, in the discourse of the AKP, veiled women have often been referred to as “headscarf-wearing sisters” – applying positive connotations to veiling in Turkey as a symbol of AKP’s political Islam and a stance against secular values (Mutluer, 2019). A long-term perspective on veiling in Turkey thus shows how meanings and experiences associated with veiling are context-bound and historically changeable. Expanding upon this, I propose that decentering the experiences of cis-heterosexual women offers the potential for us to gain deeper understandings of the multiplicity of meanings relating to veiling in contemporary Turkey.

LGBTI+ Muslims in Turkey

Homosexuality is a sickness” declared Aliye Kavaf, the Minister of Family Affairs, in 2010. Since then, similar statements have been made by several official figures of the AKP and more recently by Ali Erbaş, the head of Religious Affairs Directorate, and by President Erdoğan. The AKP’s hostile stance towards LGBTI+ has been articulated through populist discourses such as protecting public/common morality, patriarchal norms, and homophobic interpretations of Islamic scripture. The notion of public morality put forward by the AKP not only serves to justify homophobic attitudes in Turkey, but also to construct queerness as inherently non-Muslim or secular: imposing a secular framework onto homosexuality and, by extension, on LGBT movements (Puar, 2007). This can only exacerbate Turkey’s already polarized political climate by pitting Islamic/moralistic/AKP supportive voices and forces against LGBTI+ subjects, who become subsumed into a single, homogenized category that comes to represent everything those first group seeks to repress – i.e., immorality and secularism.

This was the political context in which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with 14 LGBTI+ Muslims in Turkey from 2018 to 2019. My central research question was: “How have LGBTI+ Muslims reshaped Islam in the course of their lives, and how do they interpret their spiritual and sexual practices in relation to their Muslim and LGBTI+ identities?” Although I did not directly ask about the practice of veiling in my interviews, all the women participants (five cis-women and two transwomen) were very keen to express their views on veiling and/or to recount their veiling experiences as part of their personal journeys through Islam. As they described how they experienced being seen as veiled and openly queer and/or trans Muslim woman in LGBTI+ and Muslim circles, it emerged that veiled LGBTI+ people were not made to feel welcome in either religious or LGBTI+ social contexts. Among my interviewees, some cis-lesbian veiled women reported that they themselves felt comfortable to wear the veil, yet they experienced a condemning public gaze. Other participants felt so distressed that they decided to take off their veil.

In this blog, I will focus exclusively on the experiences of two women who decided to stop wearing the veil, not only to signify their political stance against AKP’s political Islam but also as a result of their discomforting gendered experiences in relation to veiling.

Ceren and Derya

When I met them, Ceren was a 28-year-old cis-lesbian woman, and Derya a 27-year-old-trans heterosexual woman. Both told me they were Muslims who used to wear the veil. Not only did they share having worn the veil, they had also both experienced marginalization and discrimination in relation that from LGBTI+ as well as Muslim circles. Their two different accounts offer insights into the gendered meanings of veiling in Turkey and testify to the diversity of veiled queer and trans Muslims’ experiences in Turkey.

Veiling as obscuring masculinity

For Ceren, veiling was something she had chosen to do. However, over time she felt the veil became a barrier to her desire to express her gender identity in a more masculine manner and to acknowledge her same-sex sexual desires. During our interview, Ceren stated that when she had worn the headscarf, she had not felt a personal connection to her veiling, and that it had become increasingly hard for her over time. She recounted, “as soon as I graduated from university, the next day, I unveiled and felt free”. On that same day, she decided to cut herself off from all her previous friendships except for two university friends, and then she went to an LGBTI+ association for the first time. Explaining how she had experienced veiling as a barrier, Ceren reflected that her gender played a role in her decision. Ceren did not want to be seen as feminine, but found the idea of being perceived as masculine acceptable, even desirable. Along the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, Ceren located the practice of veiling at the more feminine end, and observed that her feeling less masculine when she was veiled was probably because her perception of veiling as a requirement for only Sunni Muslim women in Turkey. Hence, for Ceren, the veiled body as a less masculine expression of self became incompatible with her own self-image and the body she wanted to inhabit.

Alongside her decision not to wear the veil, Ceren chooses not to use makeup or wear feminine clothing such as skirts or dresses, as she perceives these too as barriers that prevent her from acknowledging her masculinity and same-sex sexual desires. Ceren’s decisions about the headscarf are interwoven with other choices she has made since acknowledging and accepting her sexual orientation and finding a gender expression that she can feel comfortable with.

Veiling as obscuring femininity

Unlike Ceren, Derya did not experience veiling as an expression of femininity. As a heterosexual trans woman, Derya told me she feels uncomfortable and unconfident about her feminine appeal when she wears a headscarf. During our interview, Derya discussed her critical views on Islamic norms of veiling, especially the perception that wearing the veil is a must for Muslim women. She sees the veil as an expressive choice for Muslim women rather than a symbol of Muslim faith per se, and she notes that the veil is loaded with cultural and political connotations, especially in Turkey. After making these comments, Derya went on to tell me “I do not feel like I am hiding my beauty [when I wear the veil], but that it makes me even uglier. I mean, initially, I veiled because I was uncomfortable with the gazes [of society]. But after a while, I realized that I was thinking differently, because what was disturbing me was my sense that nobody was looking at me.” My understanding of her narrative was that when she had worn the headscarf it had obscured her femininity. More precisely, her desire to be seen as feminine seemed incompatible with the aim of veiling, as she perceived it: as a disciplining of the self. Also, the sense of covering her feminine subjectivity and reducing her body to simply a “veiled body” reminded Derya of the past, when she had not been viewed as a woman, and brought back her feelings of gender-nonrecognition. Derya decided to take off her veil because it was triggering her dysphoria and causing her “to feel like a man”. For Derya, the practice of veiling disturbed her relationship to her body as a trans woman in Turkey. The irreconcilability of Derya’s feelings about her body image with the Islamic/pious connotations imposed upon veiling in Turkey, meant that she did not feel able to wear the veil without compromising her gender identity and expression. At the end of the interview, Derya told me that she hopes to one day have enough confidence in herself to proudly wear the veil again.

Another prominent theme to emerge in Derya’s interview was the feeling of exclusion from both Muslim and LGBTI+ circles. Based upon her own experiences, Derya divided the Turkish public into two opposing sides: one group made up of pious Muslims and the other of LGBTI+ people. Among these, Derya felt she was rejected by both sides. Derya’s sense of being rejected by “both sides” contributes to her perception that society is irreconcilably divided. It is not just the hegemonic group that stigmatizes LGBTI+ people, but also the LGBTI+ people themselves that reiterate binary oppositions and reject bodies that do not fall into expected categories.

Tracing the gazes upon veiled bodies

In the light of the experiences of veiling outlined above, I would like to suggest that the meanings associated with veiling produced at least two uncrossable boundaries or red lines for Ceren and Derya. The first was that both felt uncomfortable with the idea of being identified as bearers of a symbol associated with the AKP. Neither Ceren nor Derya wanted to be seen as supporters of AKP politics – especially within LGBTI+ circles, due to the AKP’s homophobic and anti-feminist policies and rhetoric. For this reason, the AKP’s appropriation of veiling as a symbol forces veiled queer and trans Muslims who do not support the AKP into an awkward position, as Ceren and Derya experienced first-hand.

This was exacerbated by the gendered connotations of veiling in Turkey. Ceren’s and Derya’s disturbing sense of being/feeling less masculine or less feminine when they wore the veil prevented them from expressing and living their desired gender identities. While Derya wanted to feel seen as a desirable heterosexual woman, Ceren wanted to present herself in a more masculine way. Bringing these two experiences together in this blog has enabled me to show the ambivalences of the veiling experience for queer and trans Muslim subjects in Turkey. The ambivalent nature of veiling invites us to think beyond simple semiotic interpretations of the practice to trace individual examples of how veiling is part of other gendered bodily relations, affects, and practices. Veiling is even more complex and multi-faceted than gender itself.

This leads me to propose further questions to ask as we explore the experiences of LGBTI+ Muslims in Turkey: How do gazes co-produce sexualized and gendered bodies when they encounter queer and trans Muslim bodies? Can we develop a more nuanced vocabulary to discuss veiling in Turkey, rather than relying on binary attributions such as ‘masculine–feminine’, ‘secular–devout’, or ‘supporter/opponent of the AKP’? How can attending to diverse veiling experiences enable us to tell stories that have the potential to break down boundaries between the voices engaged in contemporary debates involving the AKP and those calling for an end to the discrimination of nonnormative sexual and gender identities?

Considering gendered aspects of the veiled body in the case of queer and trans individuals’ experiences, whose attachment to veiling may be quite different to the mainstream representation of veiling in Turkey, can bring enriching new insights to an otherwise tired debate. Furthermore, unpicking some of the ambivalences of veiling for queer and trans Muslims in Turkey may help us to better understand the interrelated discursive constructions of femininity, masculinity, piousness, and supposed LGBTI+ secularity, and how these constructions are deployed in political rhetoric.