A Female Traveler in a Conservative Land

Imagine you’re in a truck stop bathroom in conservative Muslim Eastern Turkey. It’s midnight and you’re tired, but you’re with your friends and you just had the best sutlac of your life.  Even though you’re waiting in line for the smelly, self-dubbed “squatty-potties” you’re happy because you’re traveling and you consider this smelly bathroom full of old Turkish women  part of the experience.

An elderly woman walks in. She is wearing a hijab and a long dress that covers everything but her face and hands. Your friend is standing behind you in line wearing conservative Bermuda shorts that the average Westerner wouldn’t think twice about. This old woman slaps her thigh as she walks by, disgruntledly muttering disapproving comments in Turkish. You jump in in an attempt to save your friend, telling the lady in broken Turkish that you’re American, hoping this will communicate to her why we think it’s ok to wear these God-offending shorts. The lady lights up and says “tourists”, pinches your cheek and kisses both sides of your face. You foolishly grin at her (because what the hell else are you supposed to do) and mutter a butchered Turkish “nice to meet you”. You figure your floor length skirt and long-sleeved cardigan made you appropriate and respectful to her somehow. She cuts in front of both you and your friend as you both stand there stunned and confused about the incident that just occurred.

There comes a time when traveling that you have to ask yourself what you’re going to compromise and what you’re not. I value my independence more than most things, but, as a woman, going to many foreign countries means I have to give up this independence. Even in modern secularized Turkey there are places where you don’t see women walking alone at night, but rather always walking with a man. You don’t see anyone wearing shorts. You don’t see people running or exercising outside, especially women alone. Adhering to these cultural norms means that I have to compromise my independence which is either something I can get mad about and resist or chalk up to a cultural experience and make the most of it.

Naturally we would want to pick the second option, thinking of ourselves as open minded individuals who are willing to adapt to the harsh conditions of the places in which we decide to adventure. This can keep a traveler happy for a while but it can be taxing. I can wear skirts every day without a problem, but if I want to walk to the grocery store at night by myself because I really need chocolate I want to have that option without getting the eyes from every many I pass on the street (I realize there is also an American novelty aspect to this as well as me being a woman).

The second question to ask is which cultural norms you are going to defy on the basis of equality instead of basing it on your own cultural freedoms. You have to ask yourself if you should be mad that women can’t walk alone or if you’re going to reduce the fact to a cultural norm.  Are you going to be angry about it for the female citizens or just selfishly for yourself? Is it disrespectful to the culture to be mad about the inequality?

These are all hypothetical questions that came to my mind when analyzing the frustrations I had while traveling in a conservative. The story in the intro was a true story, word for word, involving a friend and I. I found a pull within my mentality about different aspects of the culture that I did not find in Rwanda. I found that I was struggling between doing what I want and being polite and respectful in a conservative land. And that as a small and frankly out of shape woman I probably don’t have the option of traveling anywhere alone or even with another female friend. Because that’s not how much of the world works. For the first time I felt a hint of the feeling that being a woman made me a class below. And I did not like it.

This example is trifling, but it gives an idea: now imagine you’re in a Turkish bath. The one reserved for the women, of course, because both genders are not going to get naked and wash themselves in a communal bathhouse together. You’ve heard of Turkish baths and are expecting to be pampered and massaged when really you just get stared at by a group of large, naked Turkish ladies as a woman takes off your bikini top and rubs your skin down with a rag she didn’t wash between uses. You leave disgruntled, waiting to talk to the boys about how bad it was for them.

They loved it. They got drinks and massages and warm towels and everything good in the world (and they didn’t see any genitalia). Why? Why was it so different? Frustrated you jokingly tell the guys life’s not fair and shut up so you can think about how much you want a massage and a bottle of fizzy cherry mineral water instead of the memory of a room full of Turkish women staring at your boobs you didn’t plan on exposing.

Long story short, adaptation is sometimes a struggle, especially with the slight feeling you’re being discriminated against. To adapt to the culture or resist the culture – that is the struggle. The key is to find a balance – you’re going to be different no matter what.

And take one a step at a time.

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