Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Separate Societies: Gender in Turkey

Turkish Men Outside a Cafe
The men in Turkey sit in cafes, play dominoes, smoke and converse intensely. To look at two men involved in such a connection, you would swear they were gay. The men are predominantly the folks we dealt with, they run the great majority of restaurants, pensions and shops. Some hotels have women at the front desk and you may find a shopkeeper or two but the overwhelming percentage of workers are male.

It is hard to make genuine connections in a country where you don't speak any of the native language but the following information is based solely on personal observation and experience.

Some restaurants are "family" places which cater more to women and children. Bars and places that serve raki (an alcoholic beverage) and other alcoholic drinks are men's domain. As foreign women, we were treated as honorary men and welcomed almost everywhere. The one exception was mosques, where we had to cover as Turkish women do, although sometimes at mosques I passed for male, in which case covering did not apply.

The men are good friends with one another and women are very peripheral to this picture. In the raki restaurant in Izmir, we saw intense, animated talking male duos and groups. On a boat trip in Kas, we met four Turkish college students, in two heterosexual couples. The men spoke to us in English. The women didn't speak to us. During the entire trip, the two male friends talked non-stop. The women sat at the far ends of the group and were silent. At swim stops, in the water, we occasionally heard them giggle or speak softly.

At one point when we tired of hearing the guys hold forth, we descended to the lower deck where we found one of their two women friends who had perhaps also tired of listening. She had ordered a beer, was smoking a cigarette and was actively communicating on her smartphone.

We visited a private home in Pamukkale. The guy who worked at our hotel drove us to his uncle's place. We sat on a beautiful carpeted porch overlooking the dry, cactus and scrub-speckeled mountains. A welcome cool breeze was blowing. The uncle's wife wore a scarf and spoke no English. She smiled and brought us all tea and almond cookies which she did not serve herself. I noticed that inside she removed her headscarf, but repositioned it when she came back to the group. Mostly, the two men spoke Turkish with each other and Deborah and I did the same in English.

In Izmir, we inadvertently booked a hotel in the red light district which was conveniently located between the bus and the train station. It was a lively neighborhood with reasonably priced bars and restaurants and not at all scary. Next to our hotel was a brothel. The women in the open front of the place wore tiny, gold lame bikinis. One had died blonde hair and loads of interesting, tribal style tattoos. I smiled at her warmly and she smiled back, surprised.

We sat on the chairs outside the front of our hotel. It had been a sizzlingly hot day, so many people, read "men," were  sitting out on the street too. A man from the brothel came over to me and asked in broken English, "Do you want to be with sister?" I laughed and told him we were staying in this hotel and just getting some air but it was clear that I could have purchased some face (or other bodily part) time with the blonde if that's what I'd desired.

Later that evening the police were called to the place because a screaming fight broke out between one of the girls and a john. She was going after him and definitely landed a few punches. Most of the men on the street stepped in to intervene and try to keep them apart. 

The Secret Sisterhood
Turkey is a world of whores and madonnas, similar to the USA of the sixties before the women's movement. It is a place of great warmth and compassion but also a country plagued by gender division and women's second-class status. The rate of domestic violence against women is higher in Turkey than anywhere else in Europe. Islamic fundamentalism is growing and I saw many more covered women this trip than when I visited in 2002. At that juncture, it was illegal for women to wear their scarves in universities or government buildings.

Now, even the Prime Minister's wife is covered. It was heartbreaking for me to see these women wearing headscarves, long sleeves, and loose-fitting black coats over their clothes in temperatures that often reached the high nineties and low hundreds. In general, these women were sweet to us and we often went to them for directions. We joked that they ran a secret sisterhood, and whenever we had the opportunity to patronize a business that they ran, bakeries often fell in this category, we did. These interractions made us feel cared for and welcomed in a way in which the male-run establishments could not equal.