Foreign Women in Turkey – Changing Face

Foreign women in Turkey - read some real life experiences

Me wearing the notorious beret.

Back in 2000 when I first lived in Istanbul, most of the foreign women in Turkey I knew were blonde. Whenever we met up for coffee they would regale me with stories of being followed by strange men and touched intimately and inappropriately on the shoulder or the backside. Perhaps I was more prejudiced than I realised or simply naive, but at the time I felt they were exaggerating. Some of them went on about it so often I wondered if they secretly liked the attention, as by their accounts it was so much more than they received back home. I often thought they only complained because they felt they ought.

Two years later, after a confusing day when it seemed like the whole male population was winking at me as I ploughed through the crowded alleyways of Eminönü and Tahtakale in search of smuggled tobacco, I had to rethink my assumptions. It was late December and I was well rugged up in a long black coat with my hair back in a neat pony tail that showed off the black beret I’ve worn every winter since I was sixteen. The tobacco men were situated in a tiny, almost hidden laneway I called Porn Alley. It was where smuggled tobacco was sold alongside pornography, perfumes, condoms, vitamins and elaborately displayed packets of Viagra. Few if any women frequented the area but as a foreign woman I was used to being the only female in strange places and was also used to being stared at, a lot. Having blue eyes has made me the focus of intense interest in many different countries I’ve travelled to, and this was no different. Besides, I was with my husband so I wasn’t worried the men would do anything more than just look.

However I was really puzzled, so I told my Turkish friends what had happened. I learned that in those days, young Russian women were beginning to turn up in Istanbul with a single suitcase full of items to sell. With the money they made they planned to return home with the same suitcase, full of money and Turkish goods to re-sell. Sadly many were unsuccessful and had to turn to other methods to survive. My friends told me told me these women, known locally as ‘Natashas’, would mingle with the crowds trying to catch men’s eyes. If a ‘Natasha’ winked at a man it meant she was ready to do business. Wearing a beret somehow signalled to the passing men that I was one such woman, despite my marked Anglo Saxon appearance.

Of course, not all foreign women in Turkey who are originally from Russia and former Soviet states are prostitutes, just as foreign women are not automatically promiscuous because they have sex outside of marriage, but the term ‘Natasha’ remains in use in Turkey today. This is despite many more Turks doing business with people from these countries, and the fact that the number of Russian residents in Turkey has greatly increased. So established now is the Russian population that in the last elections a Russian woman, who has take up Turkish citizenship, ran for a position with the Antalya council. Nonetheless, it seems that no matter what we as foreigners bring to the party, we are the ones who have to change in order to fit in to Turkish society. If we don’t change, we run the risk of being categorised according to popular (mis)conceptions about our nationality. Much as I dislike doing so, I’ve learned it is easier to modify my behaviour than to change the people around me. If I don’t, I run the risk of being treated in ways I don’t like.

Change comes so gradually that you often don’t realise how much you don’t let yourself do as a woman, in order to have a hassle free life in Turkey. At a recent lunch with someone relatively new to living in Turkey as opposed to coming here as a tourist, it came to me how much I now take for granted that I would not so easily accept in my own country. Some things I can’t change, like the fact I am an Australian and love to walk. As is my nature I stride along the street quickly and confidently even though I know this attracts unwanted attention. In addition I am often out on my own. Turks of either sex travel in pairs or groups unless it absolutely can’t be helped, so I stick out like a sore thumb.

Being on one’s own is a marker of foreignness that makes you rethink your ideas on a lot of things. Such as what constitutes a ‘short skirt’ in Turkey? When I lived in Kayseri I stopped wearing knee length skirts altogether because there they were considered practically indecent. Back home it’s not uncommon for girls to wear skirts so short they’re little more than belts designed to display as much as is possible and then some. And again, after years of living in Turkey and being told how ‘brave’ I was to go out with wet hair I no longer do so because I’ve learned everyone will think I’ve just had sex. I no longer so readily make eye contact and nowadays I am selective in whom I ask for help. If I am waiting for a bus I always ask a women for information rather than risk having a man see this as a sign of interest and try to follow me when I disembark. The only men I do ask are men like simitçi (simit sellers). They can’t leave their stock, while a man in a shop can always get a friend to cover for him while he follows me.

Yet whatever you do to change, sometimes it doesn’t matter. You will always be a yabancı (foreign) woman and therefore the object of unwanted attention from certain types of Turkish men. And believe me, age, theirs or yours, is no protection. This came home to me when I was at my local hospital waiting to have a tomography. I was in the emergency section and in a lot of pain from mysterious stomach cramps, but no one was at the desk of the department I’d been sent to. All I did was politely ask the only other patient there, if he knew when the receptionist would come back, and five minutes later he was telling me my beautiful blue eyes reminded him of the waves in the sea. He had his test done before mine but then waited around outside for me to exit the hospital. When I spotted him loitering in the carpark I wheeled around and went in search of the toilets. I decided if he as still hanging about when I came back out I’d find a security guard and tell him the man was a sapık, a pervert. Bugger the consequences! When I was a teenager my mother told me the toilets were the one place a man wouldn’t follow me, and luckily this proved to be true, even in Turkey.

The following is a list of books about what life is like for foreign women in Turkey today.

Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey – Edited by A. Ashman & J. Gokmen
Living under the Shadow of Two Cultures: From the Steeple to the Minaret – Hugette Eyuboglu
The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling – Nilufer Gole

 

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About Goreme1990

I’m Lisa Morrow, the person behind www.insideoutinistanbul.com. I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up a leafy middle class North Shore suburb. After finishing high school I went to Sydney University but failed to find my niche. After working as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, I went overseas. Once there I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. My three months stay in the small central Anatolian village of Göreme changed my life. On my return to Australia I earned a BA Honours Degree in Sociology from Macquarie University. An academic career beckoned but the call to travel was louder. After several false starts I moved to Turkey and lived there for ten years. In 2017 I moved to Lisbon, Portugal, but continue to travel regularly to Istanbul. In addition to my blog I've written a travel narrative memoir called "Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul" and two collections of essays, "Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City" and "Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries". I have a regular segment on San Francisco Turkish radio and in early 2017 I released an audio walking tour called "Stepping back through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk", through VoiceMap. In addition I write for various international and Australian magazines and websites, as well as for this blog. A full list of my published articles, with links, can be found on the Writing on Turkey and Writing Beyond Turkey pages.
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18 Responses to Foreign Women in Turkey – Changing Face

  1. BacktoBodrum says:

    I think I’ve been very lucky to live in Bodrum since 1982, where I haven’t experienced anything like you describe above. In general, when I was a young good-looking blonde (unfortunately now 3 decades plus and counting ago) I felt I was always treated better as a ‘yabancı’ and this sometimes embarrassed me. However now that the rest of Turkey has moved to Bodrum, I hear of many young foreign friends being treated to occasional shows of disrespect and my own 23 year old daughter confirms this. Times are a changing

    • Goreme1990 says:

      One of the interesting things about Turkey is how different life and social rules are depending on where you live. When I lived in Kayseri in Central Turkey where people are more conservative I only had to hop on the bus and an hour later I’d be in Goreme, where I could happily have a few drinks and stay out dancing all night. Not activities I could easily do in Kayseri! Over the years Istanbul and the mix of people who live here have changed a lot, unfortunately not always for the better. Nonetheless the positives still outweigh the negatives.

  2. Goreme1990 says:

    It sounds like things have been quite hard for you. I am a feminist from way back but I have learnt you have to choose your battles. There’s no point trying to change a culture in one go. it doesn’t work and you only end up hurting yourself.

  3. Lynda Yilmaz says:

    I identified with everything you said and some…I virtually never go anywhere without my husband. Sometimes he drops me off at the (safe) shopping mall and then picks me up again when I’ve finished. I no longer stride confidently along head in the air. I walk slower and keep my eyes down. I don’t make eye contact with anyone unless i (we) know them very well. My friend was told by the police after she’d fought off an attack in her home that ‘you probably smiled at someone who thought it was an invitation for sex. You foreign women smile too much’ I have learned not to draw attention to myself by calling out after a friend in the street. All this modesty – can’t hang your knickers on the line in plain view, but go to hospital and every Tom Dick and Ali can wander in and out while you lie there half naked! I can recall my husband wrestling with a doctor who was trying to pull down my jeans to give me an injection in the bum – eventually they ‘arranged’ me so that just enough skin was exposed for the doctor to jab the needle in!

    • davutgurbuz says:

      …I must confess as a turkish man, there are dozens of bully men are living in this country ! Beside this the face of country changed a lot now. I do not know how long have you been or had you lived in Turkey. But anyone who spent some years in this country can observe this. Sure as a result of diversity it varies west to east.

      Each culture hold its own values but I think the point is staying behind the border of others rights and freedom. Anyone can understand or evaluate another culture from his/her cultural perspective. We need a top frame to evaluate both. Another way is being a real part of both. Unfortunately I do not see a perfect place to live in this violent world ! A heart breaking incident happened in this country recently. And many incidents are happening around the world because of racism, ignorance, insanity – rape, abuse – babies, women even some nations are victims.

      If we would like to change this portrait we should find the cause. As far as I’m concerned the main causes are…. lack of love ! Yes within family, between spouses or less care for children. Lack of communication among individuals, among community , among countries Not accepting an individual how he/she is. And violence triggering. Lemmi expand this; as seen on TV ! They are broadcasting all hannibal, saw,,,,and more similar violent broadcasts. We are bad because we are watching these. We don’t care/respect/love our kith and kin. Now we have a Family and Social Policies Ministry. I find this very meaningful in case it works right! The mother of #ÖzgeCan’s murderer tells she was beaten by her husband(old). This is what you give what you get case. If we put love seeds we get it.
      BTW, I strongly recommend reading Lisa’s books. I found most of her analysis quite considerable.

      • Goreme1990 says:

        Thanks once again Davut for your input. It is important to hear from Turkish men as there are many good ones in the country. Sadly we often only hear about those men who commit terrible acts of violence.

  4. Bori Toth says:

    This is my 4th year living in Turkey and sometimes, I must admit, I feel like an outsider, even though there is a huge group of ‘family’ I have here. Every sentence of yours felt like a ‘chicken soup for my soul’, thank you so much for it! I enjoyed every single word and it also gave me more strength to keep living my life the way I do. When you are an expat, there are inevitable changes you notice in your way of living, on the other hand, you experience so many things people who have never traveled or have never lived abroad could not even imagine. The funny thing is that I’ve noticed almost the same changes in me- which might mean that we got them Turks right 🙂 even though I’m from Hungary.
    P.S.: If you ever visit Gaziantep.. please be careful with the toilets around here… sadly, they do follow you there… oh, and one more thing: Love that beret!!!
    Actually,.. it would be really nice if you came to Antep, it really is the culinary Heaven of Turkey and a wonderful place worth seeing. Please let me know when you do :)) Thanks again, looking forward to ‘read from you soon’ :))
    Yours sincerely,
    Bori Toth

    • Goreme1990 says:

      Dear Bori,
      Thanks very much for reading my piece and telling me about your life in Gaziantep. I have been there once and know it is a lovely place, but I also know life is more difficult for women in the east of the country. We can only hope change will come. Take care and keep on reading. I’ll definitely let you know if I plan to visit – the baklava there is the best in the country!.
      Lisa

  5. This is not my speciality ,sapık. But as a Turkish citizen I would like to share my own comment here.

    I’m very sorry about the facts! Even I haven’t got blue eyes and I’m not a girl but as I shared you before one of these sapık disturbed me,too.I can’t believe that it happened in Kayseri.Beside this the common point is it was my first day in Kayseri. So it means they look for foreigners who don’t know what to do. I know that some exceptional places in İstanbul and Ankara there are dozens of maniacs like that. But Kayseri is different, it is smaller and safer.

    For short skirts ,
    In most of countries where Islam is common you can’t reveal your body lines. It is forbidden in law. But there isn’t any legal restriction in Turkey.Everyone welcomes here.Even maniacs! Today in İstanbul and Ankara and for other big cities we can see western style dresses more than other cities. Not short skirts , very shorts skirts. They come to job by wearing tights or extremely short skirts and in my opinion that is not acceptable. An office is an office not an erotic arena or a fashion show.We must be serious in some places this is not a touristic journey.This is another discussion issue. Sure I don’t support maniacs attitude by this. We all have sisters or at least a mother. Everyone should respect to a lady. Anyway this is a hard topic to talk on. Turkey is between Asia and Europe and TV,social life, many other factors affects lifestyle here. I think most of the people are respectful in general. But for metropolises such as İstanbul there are many moves from different regions of Turkey. This is the reason of variety and diversity.

    Wet hair,
    In İslam after being with your spouse you should take a shower and wash all of your body. We call this as *gusul* or *gusul abdesti* . If you are in hurry and you don’t dry your hair people may guess like that unconsciously. But I don’t agree that most of the people think like that today. You should be heard it from an elder one. Most of the things are shame in elder ones opinion .

    Natashas,
    Natasha is a common name in Russia. People calls informally Natasha for Russian girls and Helga for German girls.(slang) Sorry about that but this is the Natasha’s job. I’m terribly sorry for whose name is Natasha and doesn’t deserve this. There is no visa for Russian citizens and they come to Mediterranean sea easily for job! So in the name of job or travel we think that some tourists come , this is good ! Not so! Some of them are real tourists but some of them have being with guys for money. So this Natasha word made up as a slang sadly.
    I have three aunt in Antalya and Alanya and my cousins grown up there. My cousins couldn’t find a job at summer once he told me that some people comes from East of Turkey to work! They accept working for peanuts only. Their intention is being with these Russian girls indeed. I’m not making up from my mind.This is reality. Some people might think everything if you are a foreigner here.

    Yabancı,
    If I were in any other country except countries like US, I would be always a foreigner, too. But being a *yabancı* is not always bad. There are some pros. You look other side of it to Turkey and we need hearing this from you.

    We talked about all immoral stuffs. But don’t forget that there are very ethical people live in Turkey in general. Most of the people are very strongly loyal to their spouses. I think all we talked are less part of the country.”A bad model is not a real model”. If we don’t like a way in our life we should turn another way. That is all.

    Yours Respectfully,

    From your student Davut.

  6. cattidudette says:

    There are things i do like about istanbul. But also by far the only crowded city with the most amount of people feeling lonely… Solely my observation 🙂 keep writing! I will be reading even when i go home!

  7. cattidudette says:

    me too i second and agree to almost every aspect. since living here i feel that i can never be off guard, from the moment i leave the house till coming home… coming from singapore i believe i have been had such tensed period my whole life. great article!

    • Goreme1990 says:

      Thanks for your feedback. It’s funny isn’t it, how you much you can change without even realising it? Nonetheless there are lots of positives to living here which we shouldn’t forget, because if there weren’t why would we stay. Hope you like my future posts as much!

      • Goreme1990 says:

        It can be very hard to make friends at first. Everyone is busy with their families and friends, and then there is the language. I always say yes to any invitation I get and like to try news things. After a while you find you’re too busy to feel lonely! I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here and thanks for your support.

  8. imacuteypie says:

    Great blog! I’ve recognized everything you wrote, it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who is struggling here.

  9. imacuteypie says:

    Great blog! I’ve recognized everything you wrote, it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who is struggling here.

    • Goreme1990 says:

      Glad you got a lot out of it. I don’t feel I struggle as much as have to constantly rethink my values given the way what is normal and usual changes here all the time.

  10. janegundogan says:

    I didn’t know about the wet hair – ha! It explains so much. My in-laws must think The Turk and I are at it all the time then lol!

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