Turkey: A Fashion Magazine Unshy About Baring a Bit of Piety

By DAN BILEFSKY New York Times

Except for the religious headgear, the shoot could have been for any glossy fashion magazine. But Ala — called the “Vogue of the veiled” in the Turkish news media — is no conventional publication. In an unlikely fusion of conservative Muslim values and high fashion, it unabashedly appeals to the pious head-scarf-wearing working woman, who may covet a Louis Vuitton purse but has no use for the revealing clothing that pervades traditional fashion magazines.

One of Ala’s founders, Ibrahim Burak Birer, 31, a religious Muslim and a former marketing analyst who favors jeans and designer jackets, said he decided to start the magazine — its name means “the most beautiful of the beautiful” in Turkish — after seeing a transsexual with strap-on breasts in a transparent dress on the cover of an international fashion magazine.

“We realized that there was a gap to be filled for conservative Muslim women in Turkey who have a different worldview,” he said in an interview at Ala’s sleek offices, where young women in head scarves sit hunched over Apple computers. “Until now, most fashion magazines have offered a lifestyle centered on being sexy, being skinny and eating sushi. But not all women dress like those girls from ‘Sex and the City.’ ”

Ala adheres to strict Islam-inspired sartorial guidelines: arms and heads must be covered; tight pants and skirts above the ankle are forbidden. But, Mr. Birer said, the Koran has no prohibition on five-inch stiletto heels. “You can be elegant and sophisticated,” he said. “Female beauty is O.K. as long as it’s not seductive.”

The success of Ala, which has attracted 30,000 subscribers since its founding in June, reflects the rise of an Islamic bourgeoisie in Turkey that has prospered under the Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This religious merchant class, which sees nothing incompatible between wearing a head scarf and driving a Mercedes, is altering the society in a country once dominated by a secular elite that banned the wearing of head scarves in public institutions. In Istanbul today, religious businessmen endure six-month waiting lists for $150,000 BMWs, while hip young women in head scarves, skinny jeans and bright red lipstick throng the more than 80 shopping malls in the city. Head scarves are also now ubiquitous on college campuses.

In Ala, page after page of beautiful women in designer head scarves underscore Turkey’s growing comfort with such outward displays of religion.

Yet for all of Ala’s avowed restraint, the magazine and its attention-grabbing images of pouting models staring suggestively in their costly outfits have been criticized by some religious scholars. They argue that regardless of whether a woman is photographed showing off a head scarf or sexy lingerie, such behavior violates Islam, which calls for women not to flaunt their femininity.

Other Muslim intellectuals have denounced Ala for championing what they call a crass commercialism at odds with Islam. (An Islamic concept called israf forbids consuming more than one needs.) Others have doubts about the magazine’s use of lithe Eastern European models.

A recent issue featured an article on an opulent seaside hotel in the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris, complete with a landing wharf for private yachts and a separate beach, a pool and prayer facilities for men and women. Another article extolled a new line of luxurious alcohol-free perfumes called Raviseine, created by two Pakistani-born brothers. The writer noted that the perfumes were inspired by the Seine and did not contain animal products like pork that could be deemed un-Islamic.

In an interview in a recent issue, a 24-year-old homemaker listed the five things she could not live without: her red scarf, white silk shirt, black pants, pumps and Chanel Allure perfume.

“Magazines like Ala try to promote a monsterlike capitalism by telling people to consume goods that people in Turkey really can’t afford,” said Ali Bulac, a Muslim intellectual. “Our religion, our prophet’s lifestyle, encourage us to act and live in modesty, not like the world represented by Ala.”

But Mr. Birer said there was nothing incompatible between living a good life and being a good Muslim. Beneath the criticism he detects an antiquated view of some conservatives that Muslim women should be submissive and invisible.

“Some people criticize us because they think women belong in the home or in the kitchen,” he said, adding that his wife, who advises him on fashion, wears a head scarf and works as a playwright.

As for why Ala was importing leggy non-Muslim models from Eastern Europe rather than using homegrown ones, he said they were simply cheaper. Moreover, he said, some Turkish models can be reluctant to appear veiled in a country where the head scarf has been caught up in a culture war between secularists and religious conservatives.

Daniel Etter for The New York Times

Hulya Aslan is editor of the magazine, founded in June.

Hulya Aslan, Ala’s editor, a 24-year-old in a striking leopard-patterned head scarf, argued that the magazine’s depiction of fashionable veiled women reflected the empowerment of a generation of pious women in Turkey and was helping to overcome outmoded stereotypes about wearing the head scarf.

“For too long the head scarf was used as a political weapon, but there are millions of young women like me who wear the hijab; we are helping to break taboos,” she said. “We are also overcoming the cliché that head scarves are only for old aunties.”

With Turkey’s regional stature growing — and with Turkish exports like soap operas and fashion gaining a foothold in the Arab world — Mr. Birer and his business partner Mehmet Volkan Atay, 32, say they are hoping to capitalize by eventually publishing Ala across the Middle East.

“Turkey is becoming a model in the Middle East, and Ala could have wider appeal,” Mr. Atay said.

But not everyone is convinced. Ayse Bohurler, a founding member of the governing party and a leading conservative thinker, said she was skeptical of what she called the magazine’s mixed message to pious women.

“Islam is a religion that promotes modernity,” she said. “But when you wear a Gucci head scarf, that doesn’t make you a more modern woman.”