You know you live on the Western coast of Turkey when men put on their shorts before women do. This is precisely the case in my downtown street in Izmir, as young and not-so-young male fashionistas exchange their calf-hugging, ankle-length tight pants for Bermudas, khaki shorts, neon-striped bike tights and - guess what - the 1980s-style brief basketball shorts (think of “The White Shadow)” that seem to be making a comeback.
But for the women of this country, shorts may be a risky affair. Last month, Elif Ülkü Eroğlu, a university student from the coastal town of Antalya, took out the trash wearing shorts, only to be insulted by her neighbor for “dressing like a slut.” She shouted back that she would dress in whichever way she pleased, and the neighbor attacked her, pulling her hair. When Eroğlu’s mother and sister came to help her, other neighbors stepped in, with one walking from the balcony on which the girls were out at all hours and dressed improperly. The local court, which took up the case, dismissed it as “a conflict between neighbors” and set the man, Mahsun Tatar, free.
Eroğlu is not alone in facing physical violence for wearing shorts. In 2016, Ayşegül Terzi, a nurse who took the metro to work in Istanbul, received a firm kick in the legs. The man, Abdullah Çakıroğlu, said he was offended by the fact that she was wearing shorts. Terzi sued Çakıroğlu in a Kafkaesque trial, during which the aggressor first claimed that he was under the influence of drugs, then said he had hit her because she was taking up the place of two people. Politicians also joined the debate. Bülent Arınç, a former AKP heavyweight with a rich track record of misogynist remarks, saying that the man was clearly imbalanced because anyone who wasn’t “would simply mumble his disapproval to a woman wearing shorts.” Unsurprisingly, women who accused him of implying that wearing shorts is a no-no in public space rebuffed Arınç.
Finally, in 2017, an Istanbul court sentenced Çakıroğlu to three years and 10 months, not only for assault, but for “intervening in the victim’s lifestyle.”
Despite the final sentence, the court case, which dragged on, encouraged similar attacks. Shortly before the verdict on Çakıroğlu, Asena Melisa Sağlam, a university student, was harassed for wearing shorts in a minibus. The attacker first accused her of “arousing his desire” by wearing shorts (doubly offensive during the “holy month of Ramadan,” he said) then punched her jaw. Sağlam, a well-versed feminist, took her case to court and the attacker, who had a past record of other felonies, was sentenced to four years.
Other cases followed from Eskişehir to Ankara, with women’s groups demonstrating with the slogan and the hashtag, “Do Not Touch My Lifestyle.” The demonstrations have taken creative forms - from wearing shorts to carrying them like banners or hanging them on campus walls.
While headscarves doubtlessly remain Turkey’s most controversial item of clothing, shorts do come a close second in the country’s dress wars. The shorts are the dividing line between conservative and modern, coastal and land-bound, toxically masculine and rebelliously feminist/feminine, and at times, gay and homophobic.
Here are a few brief points on the battle lines:
Sports prior to the AKP: Before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) - and Covid-19 - put an end to May 19 Youth Day events in stadiums, the length of girls’ skirts or shorts had been a constant source of debate. Every year, black and white photos of girls and boys in May 19 demonstrations in the 1950s and the 60s would be posted all over social media, to be compared with the longer hems and pants that are worn since the AKP came to power in 2002.
Similarly, the shorts of girls’ basketball and volleyball teams have dominated the headlines for the past 15 years. In 2011, Bayan Yanı, a feminist satirical magazine, published a cartoon of shorts-clad female athletes embracing a granny figure with a headscarf and short baggy pants whilst shouting “do not touch my shorts.”
Arms and shorts: But the credit for introducing the debate over shorts into politics should go to Turgut Özal, the country’s unorthodox post-1980 coup Prime Minister and, later, President. Özal, resentful of the state protocol that required the head of the executive to be greeted by a military battalion whenever he arrived in a city, including on holidays, would refuse to put on a suit for his ceremony. Many said his behavior reflected modern American-style leadership. Others thought he was snubbing the powerful military, to show that it was the elected politicians who had the upper hand. At any rate, he was the only president, since Atatürk, who showed himself in shorts and a bathing suit to the public. Unsurprisingly, to this day, there is still a statue of Özal wearing shorts in the Mediterranean coastal town of Manavgat.
Shorts-about-town: While shorts were always part of the holiday wardrobe for boys, girls and adults in Turkey since the mid-20th century, it took more time to get the adults to wear them in Turkey’s landlocked capital. Growing up in Ankara in the 1980s, I can say firsthand that the capital’s residents saw hairy male legs in shorts for the first time in the late 1980s, mainly due to the young students from the coastal areas who came to Ankara to study at Bilkent, the country’s first private university. Whenever I discuss the relative merits of Ankara and Izmir with an Izmirian of my generation, s/he points out that the Turkish capital did not even have shorts until Izmir, the capital of coastal chic, brought them to “the depths of Anatolia.”
“When I wore bermudas to work on a Sunday in 1982, my editor-in-chief asked me “what, are you gay?” And then made me go home and change,” narrates a veteran journalist, who came from his coastal town to work in Ankara. This brings me to the next point…
Gay vs homophobic: Many Turks would argue that the best legs to wear shorts were those of Zeki Müren, Turkey’s Liberace. The much-respected gay singer decided to wear shorts on stage in 1971 - further ahead of his female counterparts. It was not his most daring act – the year before that, he had worn a miniskirt à la Mary Quant - but had a pants suit made from the same fabric as a back-up so he could change immediately if the public showed a reaction. The spectators did not show the least resistance to the miniskirt or to the shorts suit.
Shorts as a sign of Westernization: “Nothing, nothing beats the brevity of the 1970s sports shorts,” said a friend from the shorts-friendly Aegean region who admits that he is no shorts convert. The Turkish soccer, basketball, and tennis pros wore the short-shorts worn all around the world - unlike the longer, baggier versions Ankara’s (in)famous ex-mayor made his Osmanlıspor soccer team wear before he left his post three years ago.
The 1970s - of miniskirts and tight tops – were also a time when shorts on women were seen in movies, on stage, and by the plages in Turkey. It is no coincidence that the first “shorts photo” came from Filiz Akın, the fragile blonde icon of old school Turkish cinema. Nowadays, it is hard to see women wearing shorts on television, particularly after the media watchdog, RTUK, slapped a fine on the channel TV8 because of a teen dance group in shorts.
...or of tradition: But shorts are part of the Aegean Zeybek costume during the Ottoman Empire as well. Perhaps Izmir is entitled by history to call itself the capital of shorts?