Many of the ladies on Term in the Middle East carry the traditional St. Olaf visual set-up: Blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin. Here we are an anomaly amongst the waves of ethnic Turkish women. It doesn’t seem to matter that our hair is greasy from days of travel, our clothing modest, bland and sweaty. Compared to the beautifully dressed and impeccably groomed women of Istanbul, we feel almost insignificant. But we are different, and that still seems to work to our advantage.
Let’s talk free food. Ladies nights out, when we leave the TIME boys to nom on hard boiled eggs in the comfort of the Superdorm, proves especially fruitful. Pretty American girls apparently get free cocktails, or free mezzanes (appetizers), and sometimes even free dessert (waffles with berries and cream!). Even a trip for some midafternoon tea results in an extra plate of ice-cream to split among the group, and a not-so-subtle switch of the restaurant radio from Turkish pop to the likes of Justin Bieber. Nights out in Taks?m square also become especially fun when a group of handsome young Turks notice that we are American, and ask to buy us drinks in exchange for helping them “practice their English” (right…). Street vendors may attempt to take advantage of us at first because, after all, we are foreigners and to them we flash big, bright dollar signs. But after realizing that we are students and that we have a semi-decent hold on the basics of the Turkish language, they are instantly please to strike us a better deal.
I have never once felt unsafe or disrespected when out on my own, and I’ve noticed that, for the most part, neither do Turkish women. A visit to our tour guide Sarap’s village of Sapance (suh-pahn-juh) really cemented this in for many of us girls. We pulled into town in our large Sultan Maxi Tour Bus, exhausted from a long drive and an early wake-up, and stumbled off the bus to meet a large group of the village leaders. The Imam was there to say a blessing over our heads, the editor of the town’s newspaper was there to take our picture. But we were most struck upon realizing that the young, slender woman with the thick ponytail that stood at their forefront was the town’s mayor. We were used to women in politics. After all, one of our main lecturers, Binnaz Toprak, was a sitting member of the Turkish parliament.
Still, there was something especially powerful about seeing this well-versed and articulate woman in a position of power far from the cultural, Westernized city of Istanbul where I was used to this sort of thing. Women in Istanbul seem not to apply to the Western stereotypes of Islamic culture. There are, of course, the traditionally religious, but they seem to be in the minority. In the mosque, during prayer time (an experience in and of itself overwhelmingly beautiful), all women are pious, dressed modestly, standing and kneeling behind screens in the back, far from the peering gaze of the males in the front of the mosque. But the moment prayer is over, the chirp of obvious gossip explodes behind the screen. Outside, in the courtyard, a sea of fabric, veils, and scarves are furiously removed. Women so keen on avoiding the male gaze just moments ago now go looking for it under the guise of skinny jeans, high heels, and perfectly blown out hair.
So while I was used to powerful, Western-influenced women in Istanbul, I think I subconsciously had attributed this style of women only to the city. Somehow, in my mind, the countryside still was this sacred traditional space, and yet here I was being confronted with the exact opposite of my expectations. Here was the mayor of this tiny village, surrounded by men in traditional dress, speaking out in favor of environmentalism and increased inter-global communication. She was obviously well-respected by everyone we came in contact with. Seeing a woman in this sort of position of power, in this sort of environment, was inspiring.
I instantly began to think about one of my first nights out in Taks?m Square with my high school friend Liz Wilcox, who is currently living in Istanbul while teaching English. She took me to local bars far off the tourist-laden Ist?klal Street and introduced me to Turkish and Kurdish girls my own age. To my surprise, many of them were far more wild and Western than I could ever hope to be. Their manner of dress was not the only thing marking this distinction. They could drink more than me, sure (especially with alcohol being traditionally outlawed in Islam), and could dance with more sexual intrigue, but they could also argue the importance of secularism and the pros of an atheistic ideology, and discuss the international relations between Turkey and the rest of the world with far more precision and passion than I’d ever before encountered in a St. Olaf classroom, let alone a Friday-night-bar.
Being an American, a Westerner, I feel like I have a lot to live up to here. I am, after all, as much a representative of my own culture as I am a tourist and observer of a foreign one. I am not here simply to be pampered and complimented, but also to learn, converse and take part in larger inter-cultural dialogue of politics, culture and history.
That being said, it was still fun when, a few hours later, the young men of the village took us to the local lake, pushed some of us in, and considered to flirt brazenly on our ride in the back of a wagon pulled by a tractor. And free fruit, plucked right from the tree and placed in our mouth. Just because I’ll respect my role as woman here, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a few of the perks!