Skip to main content

Secular fanatics and religious police: Just let us live our lives in peace

The women at a hotel in Turkey who had my wife thrown out of the swimming pool were as intimidating and coercive as religious fanatics

As I completed my lap, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be my wife being escorted out of the swimming pool by staff at the Swissôtel The Bosphorus in Istanbul. We were on our honeymoon, minding our own business, when unbeknownst to us some political drama had been brewing in the background. Two other patrons at the five-star hotel had complained to the pool staff about my wife. 

The staff asked my wife if she could leave the pool. My wife, who by nature is much more passive than I, had obliged. I climbed out of the pool, rushed over to her to find out what had transpired. “They are saying that I am not dressed appropriately,” said my wife.

I walked over to the counter and inquired as to what the issue was. The one in charge appeared worried and clearly did not want a confrontation. One of them sheepishly informed me that someone had complained about my wife’s swim attire. Not one to back off, I asked for a copy of the pool dress regulations. They said they did not have an official written policy so I asked for the manager.

While I waited for the manager, we explained to the staff that her outfit – tights, a long shirt and a swimmer's cap – were all dry-fit and ought to be allowed in the pool. As we engaged with the staff, we noticed two women waiting around eavesdropping on our exchange. At one point, one of them interjected that my wife should be wearing a bikini because this was a swimming pool. The secular haram (prohibition or forbidden) police had spoken.

It quickly became evident that they were the complainants. Interestingly, there were many Westerners in the pool, and none of them had any objections to what my wife was wearing and neither did we object to what they were wearing, but these two Turkish women were clearly threatened by the extra bit of fabric. I told them it was none of their business what anyone else wore.

When I insisted to the staff that my wife be allowed to swim, the women became more aggressive and ordered the pool staff – obviously stuck in the middle – not to oblige. The women appeared to have some clout as regulars of the hotel fitness club or due to their social status.

When the manager arrived, we advised her that we would be escalating this if my wife was not allowed to swim with the dry-fit outfit she had on. In fact, we informed her that my wife had used this outfit in pools throughout the US, Canada and even in the Caribbean without any problems. The manager relented and apologised.

The two women were obviously furious. While walking away, I told the complainants that I did not like the way they were dressed (or more aptly undressed) and yet I had not objected or opposed their choice to dress as they pleased. At this point, one of the women turned to the manager and retorted that “these people are changing our country”.

The year was 2011, and she was alluding to “Islamists” because, of course, an Islamic-leaning party was in power in Turkey. Unfortunately, I lost my cool and delivered some of the choicest un-Islamic words – clearly establishing that I was not an Islamist - and went back to the pool with my wife. 

It was a shocker to me that these two Turkish secular fanatics (which clearly they were) had gone out of their way to impose their views on others.   

Yet, this was not my first encounter with the haram police. They are active all over the world. In fact, a few years before this incident I was in Saudi Arabia and I noticed the muṭawwiʿūn (religious police) there were forcing people to pray and harassing women to cover up.

The more things change the more they remain the same. Just last spring while on umrah (minor pilgrimage), again I noticed the muṭawwiʿūn in the kingdom, but thankfully they were a bit more restrained this time (though this may have been just my impression).

Meanwhile in Iran last month, Tehran announced that the Gasht-e Ershad “morality police” had begun their work. According to the city's police chief, General Hossein Sajedi Nia, the force will target “noise pollution, unsafe driving, disturbing girls and incorrect hijab”. This is reportedly a common announcement before the summer months, but this year the 7,000-strong force would be undercover with powers to enforce dress codes and even impound cars if occupants were not sufficiently covered.

While religious police in Muslim lands are busy enforcing dress codes, the secular police clearly don’t want to be outdone. Earlier this month, a teenage Catholic girl who converted to Islam, K De Sousa, was banned from a Paris school because her skirt was too long. The head teacher informed the 16-year-old that the length of the skirt meant that it was an “ostentatious religious symbol” – prohibited in state schools since 2004.

Interestingly, long skirts worn as a fashion statement are fine, but if worn out of religious conviction then secularism would be threatened. 

Indeed, even in the bastion of multiculturalism and pluralism, Canada, we witnessed a Muslim woman’s choice of dress become a national election issue when the Stephen Harper conservatives played politics with the niqab. Thankfully, the Federal Court of Appeal stopped him in his tracks but not until the government had squandered about half-a-million tax dollars.

Indeed, secular fanatics are just as intimidating and coercive as religious fanatics. In fact, as I left the pool in Istanbul after my ruckus, two pool staff members approached me and thanked me for standing up for the right to cover up in a Muslim country. 

Sadly, both secular and religious fanatics are obsessed with controlling women and how they dress. It’s about time both of them give it a rest.

- Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @faisalkutty

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

A model poses wearing one of Marks and Spencer's full-body bathing suit, in a recent undated handout picture released by British retailer on 8 April, 2016 (AFP/MARKS AND SPENCER).

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.