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