Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Being female in Turkey

It’s weird. I read several things before I arrived about the women of Turkey. Most said that they are straddling two worlds. The women in large cities largely reflect the values and culture of the West – working outside the home, dressing in modern clothes, free to come and go as they please. The women in small cities and in the more eastern regions of the country are obliged to hold intense standards of modesty and have little freedom as to when they might leave the house. There have been several “headscarf controversies” about it being a symbol of supporting repression if a politician’s wife wears a headscarf. However, others say it infringes on freedom to practice a religion. Complicated.

In the years 2000 to 2006 approximately 2000 women were murdered for “honor” by a family member (officials believe this is a gross underestimation of the reality). Women who dishonor the family (usually by having a child outside of marriage) are killed by a selected male family member. As laws have come into place enforcing stricter punishment on the murderers, “suicide epidemics” have replaced the murders. Women are pressured or threatened into killing themselves for the dishonor they have brought on their families. A recent parliamentary commission found that 37% of respondents thought that women who commit adultery should be killed. 45% of men think they have a right to beat their wives. The government passed several laws in 2003 (presumably with the goal of wooing the EU) announcing women to be equal to men in terms of work, getting half a household upon divorce, rape in marriage is now recognized as a crime, etc. But, the culture of patriarchy in Turkey still views women as more or less property.

So, with all that as background, I have found being in Turkey to be very safe, but a little patronizing. Women aren’t supposed to sit in the front seat of a car, sit next to a man (except husband) on a bus or public transport, make and hold eye contact with a man or really do any serious transacting. The women I have observed are all treated quite well. I think at least 70% wear headscarves and clothing that completely covers their body (usually a long skirt and a full length coat over it). The men treat them very protectively and occasionally look at them adoringly. But, I don’t sense a lot of respect. Our taxi driver one night got a call from his wife or daughter on his cell phone and began yelling loudly and meanly in the phone. You felt like if this female was in the room they definitely would have a few bruises.



I find it awkward to try and remember to always bow my eyes so I don’t accidentally make and hold eye contact with some vendor who is giving us directions. Or, to always ask Ron to please ask the shopkeeper how much for the fruit Mentos. Or, to always ask Ron to ask the guy where the bathroom is. It feels handicapping and frustrating and I can’t imagine that being normal life. I’m certain that when that is the normal you don’t know as much to be frustrated…but I think I still might be.


I do enjoy watching little kids (especially girls) watch me. I have blond hair, I’m not wearing a head scarf, I’m usually wearing a pink shirt and I am about half the time forgetting I’m not supposed to initiate conversation with a man. The little girls will point and stare and giggle and I imagine their mothers tell them that I am a bad example of modesty and propriety. Maybe I am.


One interesting note – the advertisements (billboards, TV commercials and magazines) that we have seen almost exclusively show women without headscarves wearing fairly western clothing.

I find this particular cultural difference (view of women) very interesting to learn about and kind of difficult to live in.

1 comment:

Christie said...

Wow. What do you do if you're a woman without a male escort? How do you find out how much the fruit Mentos are?