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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November, 2003, 15:34 GMT
Culture clash in bomb-hit city
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News Online, Istanbul

The wave of suicide bombings in Istanbul has focused fresh attention on the country's unique position - where East meets West, Europe meets Asia and Christianity meets Islam.

Most Turkish citizens are deeply opposed to US policy in Iraq and the Palestinian territories - without having an ounce of sympathy for religious fanaticism.

Women in Fatih
Women's dress ranges from full coverage to western clothing
As the bridge between continents and great religions, Turks have lived with these opposing realities for centuries.

The most obvious outward sign of two worlds colliding is in the way people - women in particular - dress.

In the crowded Istiklal street in Istanbul, at the heart of the city's cultural and entertainment life, women in skin-tight jeans and vest tops shop side by side with others dressed head-to-toe in black hijabs.

The wearing of headscarves is also becoming slightly more common after years of forced westernisation.

Secular society

For the past 80 years Turks have lived in a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward looking as part of his campaign to secularise Turkish society.

At the same time Islam lost its status as the state religion, civil weddings were introduced and women were given the vote.

Esra Sert enjoys Istanbul's city lifestyle
Still today, some universities ban students from wearing the headscarves and female members of parliament must not wear them in the parliament building.

TV news presenter Esra Sert has taken full advantage of the freedoms given to women in Ataturk's secular state.

University-educated and independent-minded , the 27-year-old presents the breakfast news on Turkish television station NTV.

Glamorous and bare-headed, she admits she lives a lifestyle in Istanbul which she could not dream of doing in her more conservative hometown, Adapazari, only two hours away.

Dincer Tascikar
Dincer Tascikar says few women in Istanbul cover their heads
"I have my own flat and my boyfriend can stay. No-one would care if we were married or not. We could even have a child without being married.

"In my hometown I couldn't do that. There would be too much cultural and social pressure against it.

"Even associating with a woman who behaved like that could affect someone's reputation."

Istanbul is Turkey's most westernised city but still there are many people who observe Muslim customs on propriety.

In the conservative district of Fatih in the west of the city, women wear the hijabs and even little girls have their heads covered.

Near the district's Ismailaga Mosque, 27-year-old financial director Dincer Tascikar was amazed to see a woman who had covered her face.

"It is the first time I have seen it - it's completely foreign to me," he said.

Hatice Atas
It's entirely up to me and I will say the same to my daughters
Hatice Atas on wearing a headscarf
"It reminds me of Jerusalem. Where I live in Istanbul, maybe only 1% of women cover their heads."

Hatice Atas chooses to wear only a simple headscarf.

The 23-year-old housewife says she is under no pressure either to wear it or not. She simply chooses to do so.

"It's entirely up to me and I will say the same to my daughters," she said.

"I think it is wrong that women cannot wear them at university or in parliament. It is just unfair.

"I would like to see some MPs wearing them because it would be more representative of our society."

However secular her own life is, Esra says the conflict between it and having a religious life is common for many women.

"My mother, for example, votes for a leftist party, but she is also very religious. There is always a tension between the two.

"There's this conflict all the time for all of us. That is Turkey."

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