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Religious Headscarf a Fashion Statement in Turkey

The wearing of a headscarf in accordance to Muslim belief is the center of a major political controversy in Turkey, after the ruling Islamic-rooted AK Party changed the constitution to ease a ban on the wearing of Islamic dress in the country's universities. But Dorian Jones reports for VOA from Istanbul that in Turkey there is more to wearing a headscarf than just religious belief.

In one of Istanbul's new and luxurious shopping malls, among the thousands of women checking out the latest fashions are religiously dressed students Ayse and Sibel. Along with traditional long coats, they are wearing brightly colored scarves in shades of hot pink and vivid purple. For Ayse, the scarf is not only a religious symbol, but also an important fashion accessory.

"When we enter a store we walk directly to bright colors," said Ayse. "There are some brands that we follow the same way we follow for our clothes. But maybe when we get older we might end up wearing darker colors, like our parents., the way you wear your scarf says so much about who you are."

Most religious women in Turkey tend to buy home-grown fashion labels, but according to Huand Gokcen, the city's religious jet set considers Italy to be the only place for scarves.

'They particularly enjoy Fendi scarves, Ferrari scarves; it is all about status for them," said Gokcen. "They like to show off to each other, and they always keep up with the newest collections. They know what is new, what is not, what is last season, but they are always willing to give big money for the scarves."

Gokcen travels to Como in northern Italy - the world capital of scarves she says - to serve the insatiable demand of her rich religious cliental, who think nothing of paying $700 for the latest Italian model.

But doesn't wearing brightly colored scarves in fashionable patterns contradict the Muslim habit of covering a woman's head to protect her virtue? Gokcen says her clients do not see the paradox.

"They feel they are being modest by covering themselves, only by covering, they are being modest they do not need to wear black," she said. "They still need to be women. The fact they cannot show their hair, they have to compete in other ways, they are not able to dye their hair color, so they use the scarves as a way of competing with themselves. Even if they are covered they still want to show their femininity in certain way. I guess they have found this outlet."

Turkey's own fashion industry, however, is changing to meet the demands of the country's increasingly prosperous and fashion conscious clients

At the Tekbir fashion show, models parade down the catwalk displaying the latest headscarves. Tekbir is one of Turkey's leading religious dress labels.

Company founder Mustafa Karadurman says it is not only the colors and styles that define Islamic women, but also the way the scarf is worn.

"Ninety eight percent of the population in Turkey is Muslim and 65 to 70 percent of the women are covered," said Karadurman. "But there are so many different ways women wear their scarf, which says so much about them. Some just tie it under their chin, which is traditional way women wear it in the countryside. Others cover their head and neck, which is more religious. Some show a little hair, while others do not, this also says a lot about a women. It is a serious business, but also an increasing lucrative one. We had a target for 100 stores, we opened 30 so far, but there is capacity to open for another 70 more stores."

For Turkey's Islamic fashion producers, business has never looked better. Whether in somber tones for the more conservative or vivid colors for the young and adventurous, the head scarf has become in Turkey not only a religious symbol, but also a statement of fashion and class.