Beyond Headscarf Culture in Turkey’s Retail Sector

Feyda Sayan-Cengiz
  • January 2016, Nature Publishing Group
  • DOI: 10.1057/9781137543042

What is it about?

The headscarf issue draws a great deal of public and academic attention in Turkey, yet the debate largely remains within the contours of the discussions over modernization, Westernization, and the Islamic/secular divide. This study is an attempt to look beyond these contours by contextualizing the headscarf issue in an insecure and low status private sector labor market, namely retail sales. Feyda Sayan-Cengiz looks into the working lives of lower-middle class, non university-educated women with headscarves employed as saleswomen in Turkey’s retail trade, ranging from tesettür shops to glossy shopping malls and small – scale retailers. Based on the findings from qualitative research combining in-depth interviews and focus groups with saleswomen wearing headscarves, as well as ethnographic study in the retail settings of five cities in Turkey, the study demonstrates the demarcation lines drawn through the headscarf in the world of retail sales. These demarcation lines reflect multifaceted assumptions about where women with headscarves “fit in” and where they do not. Women with headscarves are categorized as a specific type of labor force: a labor force suitable for working in small scale retailers servicing a clientele of humble socioeconomic status, and fit to work in more insecure and dead-end retail jobs. The categorization demonstrates the class and status implications in the polarized imagination of society in Turkey as Islamic and secular. Saleswomen with headscarves respond to the assumptions loaded on their headscarves by distancing themselves from rigid interpretations of Islamic modest dress, and underlining their flexibility in dealing with heterosocial working settings. They renegotiate the symbolic meanings of the headscarf within their quest for social and economic security as well as their aspirations for higher status jobs. Sayan-Cengiz demonstrates how the respondents’ negotiations question and complicate the fixed and reified symbolic meanings attributed to the headscarf in society in Turkey, and how they challenge the wholesale portrayals of women with headscarves as representatives of an Islamic lifestyle. By looking into the intricate, creative negotiations revolving around the headscarf in the lives of women working in an insecure and low status labor market, the book challenges the culturalist assumptions loaded on the headscarf that are common not only in Turkey’s public discussion, but also in the thread of scholarship which focuses on the headscarf as a matter of identity politics.

The following have contributed to this page: Dr Feyda Sayan-Cengiz