In winter and spring 2014, Istanbul was decorated with billboards of clear blue sea and white sand, titled “Women and Men Only Beaches” and “Private Beach Villas.” Turkish businessman Fadil Akgunduz, better known under the alias Jet Fadil, promised Turkey’s Muslims an island of their own in the Maldives. However, the promise of a high-end luxury Islamic holiday in the Maldives proved to be a major scam in July 2014. But the dream of a sea, sand and sun holiday lives on for many observant Muslims in Turkey.
When the word “muhafazakar” — meaning conservative in Turkish — is typed into Google, the first hits are “conservative hotels,” “five-star conservative hotels,” “conservative villa,” “conservative holiday villages” and so on. The “halal tourism” boom has been in the works since the mid-1990s.
Halal tourism, just as any other specialized tourism niche, has certain requirements. First and foremost, this concerns food preparation, which must be halal. The hotel kitchens should be free of alcohol, pork and pork-related products, and all meats served should come from animals slaughtered in accordance with Islamic rules, or be halal-certified. In public areas such as pools and beaches, a private section should be available for female only. In addition, while arcade games, pool tables, bowling alleys and the like are available in most hotels, gambling facilities are frowned upon. In accordance with these basic rules, other amenities may be available to guests. For instance, in most hotels, there is a masjid (prayer hall), the call to prayer can be heard throughout and all entertainment facilities respect the basic rules of Islam. The many hotels that use the crescent instead of stars for their ratings still advertise by listing their star rating. In the last decade, the number of “halal hotels” in Turkey increased tenfold.
Plenty of choices for vacationing are available to observant Muslims in Turkey — from trekking trips in the valleys of the Black Sea region to relaxing at thermal baths all around the country. Depending on economic status and personal interests, one could rent a villa that is off the beaten track or stay at a “halal resort” where all needs are met.
These halal resorts, mostly known as “tesettur hotels” — the word tesettur means dressing according to the rules of Islam — were the promise that observant families could relax and enjoy the seaside while adhering to their beliefs. With plenty of options for Islamic swimwear nowadays, are these halal hotels still in demand?
Unfortunately, discrimination in Turkish society on the role of observant women still exists. A quick search of the word “hasema” (Islamic swimsuit) on social forums such as eksisozluk reveals the deep animosity toward women wearing Islamic swimsuits on the beaches in Turkey. Critics argue that if a woman decides to live her life as an observant Muslim and covers her head, then she should not be on the beach and not attempt to swim. Considering how difficult it is to find public swimming pools and beaches in countries where Sharia is observed, maybe the observant women in Turkey should be applauded for their courage.
Seda Yener, a devout Muslim and mother of three teenage daughters, told Al-Monitor, “I decided to cover my head in college over 20 years ago. During that time, I was vacationing with my family at their summer house. When I appeared with my hasema at the beach, I became the public enemy. I had women spitting at me. They put up a banner saying arms and legs should be visible to swim in the pool. When my dad argued that the pool belonged to [everyone there] and that he paid his dues, my family was ostracized as well. I stopped joining my parents [on their vacations] after I graduated college. The uneasiness and harassment was not worth it.” Although Turkish public opinion in urban settings has come a long way toward a woman’s headscarf, beaches remain a contested area for both liberals and conservatives.
Yener and her family were at a secluded beach on the Greek Island of Chios. Chios is about 45 minutes from the Turkish coast and has become a hot spot for Turkish tourists in the last couple of years, with over 100,000 visitors expected in 2014. Many businesses on the island post signs in Greek, English and Turkish. The accommodation and food prices are much cheaper than on the Turkish coast, particularly for alcohol and seafood.
Although it is no surprise to hear Turkish spoken on the island, it is unusual to see Islamic swimwear on the beaches of Chios. Yener explained, “We prefer not to go to tesettur hotels. They are overpriced and, particularly for women and girls, not all that comfortable. The [resorts’] promises are wonderful, but they fail to meet our expectations.” When asked why her family vacations on a Greek Island, Yener said, “We feel comfortable here on multiple levels; we can bring our own car and we can find a nice and relatively empty beach and enjoy the sea with our daughters. Even if the beach is crowded, we have experienced that the people here are just interested in their own business. We are not stared at and everyone is friendly. We would also like more than just the sea and the hotel during our vacation. We have traveled to many different historic sites in Turkey and all over the United States during our vacations. If we can combine history and the seaside, why not?”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “New Turkey” is visible in the newly emerging upper-middle conservative class. It is fair to say Yener and her family belong to the neoconservatives in Turkey. They are mostly Western-educated, upper-middle class men and women between their late 30s and early 50s. Many hold high-level positions in the Turkish bureaucracy and have “green passports” (passports issued exclusively to high-level government officials and their families) that do not require visas to many European countries. Hence, with easy access, substantial income and global traveling experience, neoconservatives prefer alternative holidays.
One of Yener’s daughters, Zeynep, told Al-Monitor, “People are down to earth here. When you go to so-called Islamic resorts, despite the high costs and five-star promises, what you see is a lot of snubbing. Moreover, in the advertisements only the beaches for men are shown. There is a good reason for that. The section [of the beach] for women is small and with all the children accompanying the women, it becomes unbearable for us.” Yener’s youngest daughter, Busra, said, “Also, the hotels allow day visitors, which means long lines for drinks and food. Why do we pay a premium price and we do not even get to swim with our father?”
In the small town of Karfas, we had lunch at the same restaurant as the Yener family. They did not order the island’s special beer or wine for lunch, but most other items on the menu were halal — fresh vegetables, salads, cheeses and grilled seafood. Their daughters were taking pictures of the octopus that hang to dry in the sun while their parents discussed which site to visit after lunch with our restaurant’s host.
Independent travel habits of neoconservatives differ significantly from the traditional conservatives in Turkey. They reject the halal tourism package vacations because they are overcrowded, overpriced and mediocre. They also reject segregation. As younger generations of conservative Muslims in Turkey — who have not participated in the struggle to gain “Islamic rights and freedoms” — emerge, we may soon see the influence of the neoconservative mindset in society and the workplace in Turkey, too.