Wavy boundaries

No matter how hard we try, we somehow follow some gender-based rules both in our native countries as well as the countries we are expatriates in. Here in Turkey, some rules for women and men are strictly black and white, while others fall into a murky, gray area. Many things differ from region to region in Turkey, making things more confusing for even the savviest expat. Many foreigners refuse to conform and, because they are foreign, are able to get away with it to an extent. Others, however, are not so fortunate. Take, for example, foreigners who have either married into Turkish culture or who have decided to make it their permanent home. For me, I will always maintain a good part of my independent Americanness. But I also want to fit in here in Turkey. For years that meant watching, learning and literally picking and choosing which customs I would embrace and reject.

I moved to İstanbul on my own back in 2003. At first, I lived in housing provided by the school I worked for along with another American woman. We made a lot of cultural faux pas in the first few weeks. Not used to life without a clothes dryer, we hung all of our laundry on the balcony, including our underwear. Thinking, quite practically, that it would dry faster under the sun. After doing this a few times, an elderly female neighbor knocked on the door and said some things to us in Turkish that we did not understand. Frustrated, she just pushed past us to the balcony, removed our underwear from the drying rack (leaving the other clothes) and hung the underwear up in our bathroom. Pointing to the panties and bras, she said, “no balcony.” Duly noted, teyze, duly noted. We were embarrassed, after all, it should have been obvious. But we noticed, a little indignantly, that amongst all of the other laundry drying on other balconies there were sets of men’s underwear and undershirts drying openly. None of our stuff was lacy, frilly or sexy, yet it had to be delegated to the bathroom. Whatever, we learned our lesson and adjusted accordingly.

My Turkish girlfriends have since gone to great lengths to make sure that I am aware of certain other rules. Such as women in general not being allowed in the small tea and coffee houses ubiquitous in every district. Known as kıraathane or kahvehane, they are in general male-only places. Pretty sparsely furnished, with a TV blaring, they aren’t really a place I would consider stopping in given the aesthetics. Still, where were the female-only coffee houses then? Well, we women don’t have it too bad. There are family tea gardens (aile cay bahcesi) where I learned early on I could go to as a woman alone and not be disturbed. Yes, men are allowed in those places as well, but the space is family friendly and I appreciated that. Another thing my friends warned me about was to not get on any public transport unless there was another woman present. Just common sense, and I have generally followed it for safety reasons.

I still continue to find myself in awkward situations

However, I still find myself in confusing situations that would not happen were I a Turkish woman. Despite over 12 years in Turkey, I can still find myself in an awkward situation and not really know how to get out of it. Many of my other foreign female friends in Turkey have reported the same problems. In some cases, people believe that since we are foreign women the usual rules no longer apply. In some cases we (gasp) get treated as equals to men or as if we have no gender at all. Of course, I am not referring to cases of outward harassment, but instead to cases where certain expectations have been placed on me as a foreigner rather than as a woman. As though my gender does not count, and the Turkish gender rules do not apply. For example, a friend and her husband spent several years living in the US. Our kids are friends, and they live close, so we often schedule play dates for the kids. However, one day it was the dad who brought the kids over and stayed for tea rather than his wife. My husband was not at home, and I felt awkward, even though both were my friends. Even in America this situation would have been slightly weird, too. Of course he made no overtures or anything, and I felt bad having to try and get out of the situation and put up the gender boundaries. It hadn’t occurred to him or his wife that it might be strange, even though I was foreign. Just because I am foreign does not mean I do not have my own gender boundaries. In fact, here in Turkey, I might over-enforce a bit, especially for safety reasons. Nonetheless, I was able to explain my position to these friends and they completely understood. We both knew, however, that had I been a Turkish girl, this conversation would not have been necessary.

Other times I dig myself my own hole. With workers doing renovations, I was actually more outspoken than my husband and was able to get the job done faster, so my husband left me alone to deal with them. After awhile they would only address their questions and concerns to me, even with my husband present. The roles had switched, and no one thought much of it. As I took on more and more tasks like this, I got overwhelmed. Finally, I had to insist on re-delegating a lot of this work to my husband to deal with, even though I may not have agreed with his decisions or way of handling it. Things went slower and I had to grit my teeth but whatever.

Another instance was when our local natural gas office (dogal gaz) called to say they needed to send someone up to check all of the pipes and connections for a routine gas line inspection. We scheduled it for a day and time when I was home, as usual, alone. The guy was polite but started to ask some uncomfortable questions. When he asked me if I was Russian, I sighed and had to let him have it with my oft-repeated speech. Do you have a mother, sir? A sister or daughter? How would you feel if she was asked a question like that by the guy sent to check the natural gas lines? How ayıp! I shamed him instantly, and he left in a hurry. But still. I should have known better and made sure either my husband was home or asked our security guard or a neighbor to be with me during the inspection. I know this about Turkey, but yet I still forget. Oh well. Here in Turkey the gender lines might seem pretty clearly defined, but for many of us foreign women those lines are wavy and grey. Finding out where we stand and how to navigate our roles here is something that takes a lot of time and observation as many of the most important rules are the most subtle.