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Lavish religious ceremonies in Turkey draw angry criticism

Conservatives' extravagant religious rituals have drawn harsh criticism from every quarter.

In the 1990s, conservative Turkish women fought for their right to wear headscarves on university campuses. Now, they are facing an uproar over holding religious ceremonies that some critics have deemed extravagant.

A mawlid is a religious ceremony to commemorate a birth or a death. Though extravagant religious ceremonies are common in Turkey, a mawlid organized by Instagram influencer Busra Nur Calar for her baby received an excess of attention.

In a video of the mawlid, Calar enters a lavishly decorated wedding hall, complete with candles and strung with lights and artificial flowers. Calar's black dress sweeps the floor as three veiled women sing prayers. Calar holds a tiny baby in her arms, which are adorned with golden bracelets. The baby wears what appears to be an oversized diamond ring on its finger. The whole affair is typical of Calar, whose wedding and henna ceremony photos depict similarly extravagant set-ups.

This display of luxury and wealth comes as the media have covered three mass suicides prompted by economic hardship. Subsequently, the mawlid spectacles on social media — depicting conservative women socializing with relatives at extravagant ceremonies — have drawn criticism from people of all walks of life, including conservative and secular individuals.

In the 1990s, conservative women protested the ban on headscarves at university campuses. They showed up at university gates across the country, resisting the secular lifestyle that had been forced on them. Now, over two decades later, women who wear the veil are more part of public life than ever. According to some, they are even in a privileged position thanks to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Yet, back in the '90s, conservatives were the ones criticizing secular individuals for being "the elites." Conservatives had built their identities on modesty and rejecting extravagant displays of wealth. The current displays of luxury among conservatives is a shift, and the secular quarters' harsh criticism of this extravagance marks a cultural transformation that accompanies the new conservative privilege.

However, the opposition from among conservative women has been even more remarkable.

Ebru Asliturk is among the critics. Banned in 1997 from entering her university campus with a headscarf, Asliturk is now the head of the opposition conservative Saadet Party’s (Felicity Party) women’s branch.

“I am against the waste and extravagance that serves this consumption-oriented social life," she told Al-Monitor. "This beautiful ritual [mawlid] has been corrupted by luxury. I am saddened because our religion rejects waste and exorbitance.”

Conservative feminist Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal is an activist who fought for a woman's right to wear the headscarf in public. She said that the recent outcry over mawlids can be explained by social mobility and transition.

“Women who had fought for the right to education were daughters of working and middle-class families," she said. "They couldn’t afford luxury or extravagance back then. These [things] were regarded as wasteful. Living a simple life was agreeable."

She continued, "Mawlids for children are usual but I never came across such a fanciful mawlid. It is different now. Some conservative women think extravagant consumption is a display of status and they don’t shy away from such displays.”

This transition in lifestyles of conservative, veiled women has taken place under the AKP rule. Islamic capital has gained sway and created its own privileged class. The fact that the husband of the young woman who hosted the mawlid once worked as an adviser for the Ministry of Health is regarded as proof of this sentiment.

Yet anthropologist and journalist Ayse Cavdar offered a different perspective. “This privilege is tied to a narrow model of religiosity defined by obedience to AKP norms,” Cavdar told Al-Monitor. 

Cavdar called for taking another look at the mawlid photos. For example, the event was held in an ordinary wedding hall in a middle-class neighborhood in Ankara. The young woman who hosted the event said that the diamond in the baby's ring was fake. All this fake splendor, according to Cavdar, illuminates the AKP’s “privileged middle class.”

“Underneath this appearance of privilege, you can see fragility," Cavdar said. "The AKP says, ‘For you to continue being wealthy, you need me.’ And that wealth is limited to those photos. It conceals debt and credit.”

And what about the creme de la creme?

What about the lifestyles of those few capitalists who, thanks to the AKP, are supplied with a multitude of investment opportunities, from construction to education? What about their unquantifiable wealth? There is not much to discuss here; their contracts are signed behind closed doors.

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