From Islamic feminism and the perfect demure nightgown to topless ladies on the beach


A typical Turkish breakfast

One day over a Turkish breakfast feast in his breezy South Boston apartment, my boyfriend invited me to visit Turkey with him.   It was mid-bite – and a delicious bite at that – fresh, white feta-like cheese with sour cherry jam on whole wheat bread fresh from a nearby bakery.  My first response, while enthusiastic, was also somewhat garbled and crumb-filled. “Yes!” I spluttered, reaching for the black tea with sugar.

You see, I wasn’t really surprised when my boyfriend invited me to join him on his summer visit to Turkey – a visit, he was sure to tell me, was not a visit “home” as he considered the United States to be his home after 15 years as a citizen.  We were in the initial phase of a relationship when you can’t do enough talking – it seems there are scads upon scads of topics that need discussing into the wee hours of the night.  I wasn’t really surprised when I said “yes,” either, “yes, I will join you on this trip.”  We had known each other for three months at that point – and to complicate matters – I had initiated divorce proceedings with my first husband just a month before meeting my boyfriend for the first time.  It was a chaotic time. Nothing was supposed to happen when it did.

Love is, of course, very blind in this way – why not take a trip to a Middle Eastern country with someone you have known for three months while you are still engaged in divorce proceedings and need to write a doctoral dissertation?  Makes perfect sense, right?  Therefore, I was not at all surprised when my parents were taken aback at the notion of my summer plans.  Hardly a time to go traipsing around the Middle East with a newfound love when there were chapters to edit, legal fees to pay.  But most importantly, there were stereotypes to overcome.  Forget all of the questions from well-meaning friends and some family members about whether I would have to veil, to attend services in a mosque, to sponsor my boyfriend’s citizenship (usually just *after* I had explained that he had been a citizen for at least 10 years already) or to assume responsibility for his extended family members – the major question became – what will you wear?  I found this odd, as I am more of a dress and skirt type of person – and these days not so much of a mini skirt person as middle age sinks in.  This question of “what to wear” or perhaps “what not to wear” was the question of the hour.

The Karagöz puppets had not yet infiltrated their way into my awareness, but I sure could have used them.  They were to become the embodiments of my cultural confusion, cultural reckoning and attempts at cultural sensitivity, but at this time, I was all on my own.

One day as we wound our way down Boston’s Storrow Drive on the way to an Turkish restaurant, I gripped my seat at the latest lane-change, and attempted to cover up my fear of boyfriend’s driving by asking “are there any particular customs I should plan to respect, and, um, what should I wear?  Will your family expect me to wear something in particular?” My boyfriend let out a guffaw just before an errant lane changer got in in the way. After slamming the steering wheel with his right hand in perfect rhythm with an impossibly romantic sounding Turkish curse (only reserved for the very worst of traffic grievances, the rest just got the inferior American approach), he emitted something between a giggle and a snort.  “You want to know what my family wants you to wear?  Hah – um, how about Prada?  Or something fancy like that?  I wouldn’t worry about all that – don’t believe what you read in these books of yours about Iran – Turkey is Turkey – just be yourself. That’s why I love you.”  Needless to say, I didn’t get much out of that, and was certainly confused at the Prada reference.

Appreciating the support and individualism that had in many ways drawn me to my boyfriend was not enough for me, though, as I apparently I felt that I knew that I needed to prepare to dress in some particular manner – but not sure exactly what.  Ignoring what I knew were internal mental memos about social impropriety, ethical and moral duty to keep up appearances while finishing the latest dissertation chapter, I focused on preparing for the trip.  Looking back, I realize now that I was really clueless, no amount of reading Orhan Pamuk or Elif Şafak novels, travel guides, travel blogs, the Lonely Planet’s thorn tree posts or somewhat futile discussions with my boyfriend could really prepare me for what to expect or how to comport myself in the clothing department.

I am sure I had some romantic notions about the Middle East, Islam, kind old family ladies and veils – I think I drew on my experience of being grandmothered by a lady raised in Southeastern Spain at the turn of the 20th century.  She was old-fashioned in all ways, her slow, sun-infused lifestyle a constant in my growing up, as was the soft flush of her fan sending summer breeze in minute proportion over to me.  She wore a black lace veil to church for all the years after her husband’s death.  She kept it folded up in an empty cream-colored sugar bowl in the china cabinet in her living room.  I attempted to channel her sage advice on the matter, and as a result, I felt I knew what to expect, and in some cases, this was spot on.

Asma Gull Hasan -see link for more information when you hover cursor over image

But truth be told, I still tried my doctoral student best to prepare anyway – “I-will-be-culturally-sensitive!” I thought, with a self-imposed superiority.  As a result of this self-set edict, I read up on as much Turkish history, politics and culture as I could muster, subscribed to an English language Turkish newspaper and dusted off two old favorites:  Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers and Fatima Mernissi’s Islamic Feminism (on how Islam and veiling in particular allow women to be treated as respected equals, more on this another time).  I knew that both, in their own way, would help me to find my own way through the experience along with my boyfriend’s help.  I called on Mernissi’s work to decry friend’s concerns about dating a man from the Middle East -“Islam is empowering to some women – it is not all-consuming blue Burquas in Afghanistan and stonings in Saudi Arabia,” I would explain, “look at the Islamic feminism movement?” People did not seem to want to hear this.  The stereotype was more comfortable to stay with, I think.  The safety of the “other,” perhaps.

A controversial image of a woman in a burqa championing women's liberation

Interestingly, it was my boyfriend who rejected the validity of Islamic feminism the most. “I am so glad,” he said sweetly, “that you are reading a lot.  But you need to know that this is in a particular context in North Africa – it can’t and doesn’t happen anywhere that women feel empowered by Islam.  Look at Iran!  Look at Saudi Arabia!  Look at Qatar!  Look at what the Islamist movement is doing in Turkey – there were *hardly any* veiled people in Istanbul when I was growing up.  I support their right to wear what they choose, but I truly do fear the potential bad things about this movement.”  I later learned that the latter point he made was a common view amongst most secular Istanbullus I met.

I had been introduced, after all, to the notion of feminism, by Mernissi herself.  An odd angle for an American girl, but that’s what happened.  It just caught my eye in the library one day.  Before I could get back to a good second read, I had to contend with my parents at breakfast each morning, as I was still living with them during my divorce and dissertation-writing phase (God bless them for that, it must have been trying!).

Although I had more than an inkling’s worth of evidence that they were horrified by my relationship with this new boyfriend who was somewhat of a bull in a china shop, as they say, my stepmother stepped up to the plate in lieu of complete silence from my father who I think was trying to deny his way through it – and what father wouldn’t?  No stranger to international travel herself and no dummy when it comes to the need for cross-cultural concordance whenever possible, she announced that we needed to shop for a nightgown – and a robe.  “I am sure that something demure is in order,” she pronounced, “I am thinking about an old Turkish auntie, the matriarch of the family.  Definitely, a demure nightgown is called for.”  I supposed that my usual sweat pants and t-shirt combo were not going to cut it and went along for the ride.  Without protest – as I really had no idea what I would be venturing into vis-a-vis the meeting of the matriarch, I demurred and found myself in the lingerie section of Lord & Taylor.

Perhaps the only bastion left of traditional department stores in the United States, a matronly, be-spectacled auntie of sorts ambled up to me with a cloth ruler around her neck, stating more than asking “In the market for a bra measurement? Or can I help you with something else?”  Not missing a beat, my stepmother piped up “not in the market for a bra measurement, but in the market for a suitable nightgown and robe for meeting a boyfriend’s older aunt in the Middle East.”  Quickly erasing the comical image of me greeting a matriarch in a nightgown and robe for the first time while doing the Queen’s curtsey, I bit my tongue.  “Oh yes, of course.  Why don’t you start over here by the cottons,” she clucked, knowingly, as if people with Middle Eastern boyfriends going home for a first visit came in daily in this Boston suburb.

My demure cotton nightgown was something along these lines, but not as low cut 🙂

Whispering while Barbara was out of earshot, she surprised me with “Will you be sharing a room?  I doubt that!” Not knowing what to say, I began to compliment the selection of rosebud-patterned fabrics out this year from Lanz of Salzberg.  I suppose the sexual revolution had hit her too at some point.  I was mortified.  Before I could conjure up the right thing to say, Barbara called out from across the floor, her voice muffled from the padded bullet bras and wispy next-to-nothings floating languidly on their hangers around her.  “I think I have found a good candidate!”  It was a long, slightly baggy number, in white with blue flecks – accompanied by a seersucker bathrobe which reminded me of my Dad’s summer wedding suit.  It fit the bill.  “We just have to do the bend-over, see-through and sit-down tests now,” she indicated, marching us along to the dressing room for a modesty check.

I was reminded of lady in the wonderful contemporary memoir, Lipstick Jihad who had to dodge the fashion police – literally – the fashion police in Tehran who made sure that veils were covering the right amount of hair and that skin-tight versions of the required raincoat did not make it down their street.  These were my images of what I knew was the more extreme end of the spectrum with respect to dress and veiling in particular in the Middle East.  While I knew that Turkey was a secular country that did not require women to veil, well, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I had better go with modest.  The nightgown robe set, meanwhile, passed all tests – not too much cleavage, not too see-through and certainly no risk of revealing my personal bits upon sitting down, such as, at breakfast or during a late night tête-à-tête upon meeting in the hallway during the jetlag phase, I thought.

Little did I know that while the nightgown would provide me with much comfort in overly air conditioned rooms in Istanbul, the need for modesty at his aunt’s home was not at all an issue – though I wore it as socially-prescribed armor anyway.  The Turks, I have come to learn, have an odd mix of tradition laced with conservative notions and acceptance of ribald and open sexuality right alongside them.  For example, take Turkish commercials – for anything – candy, gum, cleaners, cars or books – the sexual references are blatant and bold.  Although I had seen them on cable TV before my first trip to Turkey, I did not internalize how absolutely explicit commercials that accompany all Turkish television shows.  All manner of cleavage, visual references to specific sex acts were eminently apparent on television at any hour of the day.

Example of an explicit ad campaign for Turkish jeans

Ever since my first glance at Turkish TV ads, I have had some sort of moral moment of shame involving a lot of blushing, say, when standing in front of a television in a Turkish café as dancers inevitably gyrated and grooved around the product of the moment while veiled village ladies or city mavens stood about in line.  It didn’t make sense to me, this veiling and sexual openness verging on vulgarity all in one fell swoop.  A product of the pro-sex generation of third wave feminists in the 1980s and 1990s, I knew that sex was not necessarily a bad thing at all – and that one’s sexuality should be celebrated and honored instead of shamed and ignored.  Why, then, I would ask myself, do I blush in this moment?  It made no sense whatsoever.  In retrospect, I do believe that this was me facing the reality of my stereotype about a somewhat Islamic country – I was so sure that from reading I truly understood what was going on in Turkey – that the reality which was never captured in anything that I had read was not possible as real reality.

Nowhere was this more obvious than on the beach on Bozcaada, a Northern Aegean island where my boyfriend’s aunt has her summer home.  One day, while walking with my boyfriend and his aunt on the beach, we walked by two women sharing a beach blanket – one edging up her tan, lying topless on her back while reading a pulpy magazine, and the other, covered head to toe in an “Islamic bathing suit” made of light track suit cloth, who threw a blanket over herself as we passed.  I wondered if the currents in the water would be more likely to pull her away with all of that cloth.  The image is emblazoned in my mind as a symbol of what epitomizes Turkey, the east and the west, the modern and the traditional, the ever-present conundrum that Elif Şafak writes about.  It is not at all abnormal to see a lady in skinny jeans and a tank top sharing a latte with her fully veil-covered sister – I have seen this many times.

My own photo of two women on the street in Istanbul (black whole body veils are pretty uncommon there, but the image gets the larger point across about veiling tolerance)

So, although I am glad that I had re-dipped-into Mernissi’s work on Islamic feminism before the trip as a starting point, it wasn’t much of a help.  Seeing the nightgown each night in my suitcase was more of a trigger for doing what I really needed to do, reflect on my experiences that day, match my assumptions to realities and talk it out into the wee hours after watching my gorgeous sister-in-law ascend to her bedroom in a stunning, low-cut mauve silk negligee and matching robe. I finally understood the Prada comment my boyfriend had made back in Boston.  This Turkish family, very secular, was more interested in Prada and  Dolce & Gabbanna than discourse on Islamic feminism.  I was stuck in “does not compute” territory, and it took a while to get out of that loop.  In the meantime, I took comfort in my Puritanical cotton nightgown.

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This entry was posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Gendered moments, Turkish Food!, Turkish-American Matters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to From Islamic feminism and the perfect demure nightgown to topless ladies on the beach

  1. Liz Cameron says:

    “The sage speaks of what he sees; the fool, of what he hears.”
    – Turkish Proverb

    To me, this epitomizes my completely clueless approach to preparing for my first trip to Turkey – although I do believe I have evolved from here, I look forward to continuing to evolve further…

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