After my recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey, I have been thinking quite a bit about the dramatic cultural differences that I observed there. Most of the experiences that stand out in my mind revolve around the interaction between men and women.
In preparation for my trip, I read “Culture Shock! Istanbul” The book was full of opinionated and dated material, and it presented Turks from a more intimate and personal place than I would find myself as a tourist. Still, I gleaned as best I could and prepared myself to play the respectful tourist. My aim was to be present, to observe and record, and to have a fun time (honesty check!).
My airport arrival, visa transaction, and trip into the city were all commonplace and I was lost in the experience of attempting to pronounce “teşekkür ederiz” correctly. When I arrived in the neighborhood of our beautiful airbnb reservation, I started to notice many tidbits from the culture book come alive.
First, a woman in a third-floor apartment was raising a basket she had lowered for a delivery – CHECK! That was described in the book. (P.s. I also saw this happening in Sicily during my 2005 visit to Palermo. Some things Just.Make.Sense…)
Second, the driver was clearly lost, but did not speak to me or any of the other women in the neighborhood. Che-ck? Wait a second! Was this a global gender stereotype or was the male-female barrier dissuading him? He had met my eyes in the rearview mirror a few times, but otherwise completely avoided me. I am prone to giving the benefit of the doubt, so I was still unsure if I could affirm the author’s point of view on gender relations. Of the people standing around watching him slowly drive (and undoubtedly sending someone to alert my “landlord”), the driver spoke to young boys of 8 or 9 years rather than the adult women. That struck me as quite odd. It made sense he might not approach me for help, seeing as how I was so obviously a tourist, yet, how would he know I hadn’t been there before? Or if I could call someone to meet me? He never asked.
Third, the “landlord” who facilitated the airbnb avoided any physical contact with me. CHECK! The culture book’s author had taken great lengths to laud Istanbul’s broad Westernization blended with upkeep of antiquated cultural practices. The young man who arrived to save the driver delivering me to the airbnb startled me with his charming smile, polished English, cheerful interaction with the driver, and complete avoidance of my hand or eyes.
I was poised to be a respectful observer, and felt no need to impose my cultural or personal viewpoint upon him. Does that sound defensive? It does to me, too. Yes, okay, I admit it, in that moment, I deeply wanted to step ever closer to this man with my outstretched hand and see if he would actually back up as I got near him. My instincts to do so were easily subdued as I shifted gears to my completely Western companions and their litany of other gender based relational oddities during my wonderful days in Istanbul.
Yet, as I have recounted these initial impressions, and as I have reflected on my interaction with the world at large, I find a strong intolerance in myself for such socialized disdain for the opposite gender. My opinion of Istanbul is not tainted by these interactions and I had many more wonderful experiences where gender was not an issue, nor a barrier, nor a second thought in my mind. Furthermore, I do not pretend to suggest that all people who practice the cultural norm of avoiding physical contact with unknowns of the opposite gender are acting on the basis of hatred.
Nevertheless, I believe that those who began such traditions were within steps of hatred, if not eating and breathing it daily.
Author MONA ELTAHAWY steps into conversation with her opinions on gender relations in the Middle East. It may be my idealism, my lifetime of experiencing quiet and overt sexism, or my current experience that lead me to cheer her on as I read this article. Why Do They Hate Us? asks the reader to consider a wide array of perspectives presented for the justification of gender divisive rules and laws. Eltahawy dismisses all such justifications in favor of the fight for basic acceptance as an equal member of society, with an equal share of power and self-determination. I am still learning about different cultures, and I may not fully understand the fight, but her words are words I can get behind without hesitation.
I leave you with the words of Ms. Eltahawy, who does not claim to speak “for” (on behalf of) all women, but I would argue she speaks “for” (in favor of) all women.
“First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman.
We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye.“