For most people, especially westerners, the all-covering black chador is a sign of the repression of women. And it often really is. Authoritarian Islamist regimes such as Saudi Arabia force their female citizens to wear these "niqabs," which turn the latter into BMO’s, i.e., "Black Moving Objects," as tourists sometimes call them. The shapeless veil deprives women of their personality and turns them into exiles from society.
Conservative Islam with a smiling face
With the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the black chador gained another meaning, which gave women some social personality, but still not a very inspiring one.
The female militants of the revolution, who wore head-to-toe black uniforms, were displaying anything but anger and reaction. After the death of hundreds of thousands Iranian soldiers during the disastrous Iran-Iraq War of the '80’s, which fitted into the Shiite veneration of martyrdom, their black chador also became the symbol of grief.
Stand-up comedy in veil
To date, I haven’t seen a case of black chador which goes hand-in-hand with joy, fun, and laughter.
And that’s why the story of Turkey's first veiled Muslim stand-up comedian, Hatice Çöpoğlu, is worth exploring. Mrs. Çöpoğlu, 39, made the news in Turkey last weekend, when she took the stage at the Levent Kırca - Oya Başar Theatre in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district.
Turkey has had many stand-up comedians before, and almost all of them have been men. What made Mrs. Çöpoğlu remarkable was not just that she is a woman, but also that she was wearing the all-covering black chador.
Reportedly, she was also quite successful. The audience of two hundred, mostly housewives from conservative backgrounds, fully enjoyed the performance and often burst into laughter, as several Turkish newspapers wrote.
She cracked jokes about her experience in life as a "çarşaflı," which literally means "those who wear sheets" in Turkish, and is seen as the most "backward minded" of the whole spectrum of covered women. Whenever she went to the airport, everybody assumed that she was going on the Hajj, i.e., the Muslim pilgrimage, she said.
But she was actually traveling to places such as Rome. The first time she went to the Italian capital, she also amusingly explained, she was shocked to see statues of naked men all around. "Estağfirullah" (God forbid!) was the first reaction she gave, but there were too many of them to say that all the time. Soon, she got used to them.
Mrs. Çöpoğlu’s case tells us something about the modernization of the Muslim world. If we understand that process in the narrow Kemalist sense, which is focused on changing the dress code of women - and also of men, for that matter - we have to conclude that Mrs. Çöpoğlu is a pre-modern bondwoman who is waiting to be emancipated. But she seems to be already emancipated: Besides being the mother of two, she has a successful career.
After working for several years at a laboratory at the Istanbul Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty, she took another job at a company that sells hygienic products. Soon, she became a very go-getting sales agent, an ability that would soon encourage her to think about being a comedian.
If you know how it feels to take the stage in front an audience, you would also know that only a self-confident individual can take this challenge. And apparently Mrs. Çöpoğlu is one such person.
She seems to be a self-made, entrepreneurial, risk-taking individual. And that fits into the definition of the modern, not the traditional, woman. So, apparently, one can modernize without being secularized.
One can even modernize within the context of the most conservative form of religious observance.
This is something the superficially-minded Kemalists will never understand, and will always explain as a conspiracy, but it is a reality.
And it implies that modernization of the Muslim world is taking place in much less ordered and much more surprising ways than we tend to imagine.
The joy that we need
I haven’t had a chance to watch Mrs. Çöpoğlu’s performance yet. But last year, in Dublin, I saw another Muslim stand-up comedy, a more famous one: Allah Made Me Funny.
That is the name of a group formed by three American Muslims, which has toured around America and Europe to present the world’s first Islamic stand-up show. Most of their jokes derive from the amusing interactions between the Western and Islamic cultures.
And they present an implicit criticism of both. And they do this in a way which is simply hilarious. Allah, indeed, made them funny.
It is comforting, but not too surprising, to see these efforts toward the creation of modern Muslim comedy.
Until recently, Islam has been under the weight of the medieval Middle Eastern culture, in which joy and fun was not emphasized, or sometimes not even welcomed. That culture rather praised austerity and sobriety.
This stemmed not from the essence of Islam, as people often perceived, but from the cultural milieu in which this religion unfolded. No wonder that eastern Christianity, in a similar way, has been much less joyful than its western, and especially American, counterpart. But as the Muslim world modernizes, things are changing.