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F - 17 : Fez - You can buy but not wear it

The classical Fez is a red dyed Felt Hat from Morocco with a Tussle on top

The dispute around headscarves tends to make headlines. Whether a country introduces a ban or abolishes it, as Turkey did in 2013, news coverage is guaranteed. Not surprising really - two modern constitutional principles clash. The right of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Turkish Women protesting against the Head Scarf Ban in the Public Sector in 2012

Less known is the fact that men in Turkey are still not allowed to wear a Fez, the traditional hat worn by Turkish men in the 19th century. Turkish President Ataturk outlawed it in 1925 – for him the Fez was a symbol of Ottoman backwardness as was the Arab alphabet. Both had to go when he modernized Turkey.

The Fez originates from the Maghreb and is named after the Moroccan town of Fez, where the red dye was made from crimson berries. Some people claim that the Fez is an ancient Greek head dress. Others credit it to the Berber tribes which is more credible since nomadic societies around the globe make felt. But nobody knows for sure.

Staff in an Egyptian Coffee House wearing the Fez - it also comes in black

The bright red Fez found its way to Turkey via the Ottoman Navy. Some officers bought the head dress for their sailors. In 1826 it became the official head dress for the Ottoman Army. The Fez became somehow the symbol for modernization in the Ottoman Empire – a hundred years later the symbolism would reverse.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI greeting Saudi King Salman recently in Tangier

Today, the Fez is still worn, mostly in Morocco. The former Indonesian President Suharto could be seen wearing it, Moroccan King wears if for formal occasions. But under Ataturk, it had to go. The mixed performance of the Ottoman Army in the First World War was not something he was proud of. For him, the Fez was a symbol for everything that was wrong with Turkey. Since the Fez had no deeper religious meaning, it was banned.

Ottoman Troops wearing the Fez during the Greco-Turkish War in 1897

Today, Egypt is the only country that still makes Fez. It was a far bigger business in the 19th century when about 1/3 of all Fez were made in the Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian-Habsburg Empire). The Czech synthetic dye was superior, kept the color far longer and far cheaper than crimson berry juice.

Ataturk dressed in Western Clothes - Women were encouraged to wear Western Fashion

Interestingly, Ataturk never outlawed women’s head scarves. The founder of modern Turkey emancipated women from their traditional domestic roles, opened higher education to them and hoped women would contribute to his vision of a modern state. He encouraged women to wear western clothes and don the head scarf. But he would not go as far as forbidding it. He knew that much of his country still lived a very traditional life and that banning head scarves was impossible to police. It was not worth it. In Ataturk’s interpretation of Islam, he was a firm believer all his life, head scarves were not essential for worshipping. Under Ataturk’s successors though, head scarves were banned for women working in the public sector. The ban was lifted in 2013 under President Erdogan. Wearing head scarves became a public religious statement. The ban on the Fez though is still in place. You can buy it in tourist stalls but you are not allowed to wear it.

In Istanbul, half the Women wear Head Scarves today - the choice is up to the Individual

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