Ambiguous feelings about Turkey

After graduating from high school, I decided to take a gap year. College will always be here; nothing will change about it. Many things happened to me during high school-an accident, my grandfather’s death, etc- and I never took the time to actually cope with them; I was always rushing, always focusing on my schoolwork and my activities. Taking a gap year can be stressing though, especially for someone like me. I am the person who likes to be busy, who, in fact, will do the extra credit and take up many positions to occupy my time, who is addicted to school, who takes writing classes and volunteers at a library during the summer, despite having experienced an exhausting and high on emotions, senior year. After interning for two months at a cardiologist’s office in Paris, where my life has been constrained for 17 years, I decided to go to Istanbul, Turkey.

I have always known Istanbul, even before I was born, even before I was an actual human form, when I was inside my pregnant mother. Because my grandfather was a French diplomat there, my mother spent her childhood on the seven hills and made us visit religiously like pilgrims. Over the years, I have picked up some words (sus, merhaba, su, food-related words), customs, traditions (unbeatable patriotism and adulation for Atatürk, the use of French words in their language) or stereotypes. Yet, I have learnt more over my two-week stay than during the previous years of my life, both through my internship and the family I am staying with.

I have grown up in an environment in which “You can do anything” was more familiar than “Go to bed.” My mother instilled in me the idea that women did it all and did not have to be constrained in roles of housewives. In fact, I cannot even remember the last time my mother cooked, did the dishes or prepared the table on Sundays, the only day we eat together. My father does it. In Istanbul, I stay with a family, which consists of a mother, a father and their daughter, who has first known me in my mother’s belly and repeatedly tells me that housing me feels like having two daughters.  After some nights, I have noticed a routine: the father and I get home from work at 6-7pm. While I go to my room to read or write, the father changes to put something more comfortable and sits in front of the TV, sometimes with his computer. The mother is already in the kitchen, preparing dinner. She prepared the table herself and did not ask any help from me or her daughter. When we finish eating, the father goes back to his seat on the couch, the daughter goes to her room and the mother is left alone to take off all the work she has done alone. Even though she assured me that it was a pleasure for her, I always help her because for me, this is not the norm; for me, everyone should help, not just the woman. After some nights, we have developed a routine on our own: I watch her cook and help her take the plates and everything else off the table. Her work does not require her to work in an office all day so she has become a part-time housewife, and even grown to love it.

Somehow, this startled me and the more I attempted to step into these norms and learn more about them, the more startled I became. During most of the weekdays, I intern with a surgeon who lets me participate to his surgeries, which enabled me to compare French and Turkish medical environments. The surgeon has surgeries in the mornings and lets me participate to other surgeries between his own. I was shocked to discover that all the surgeons I met are men and all the nurses are women, whereas in France, even though most of the surgeons are men, half of the nurses, at least, are men. A conversation with the father some days after my first day of internship enlightened me on this situation. We were speaking about my interview with a representative from a women’s college and somehow, we ended up talking about careers. According to him, and I discovered that his view is commonly shared, some jobs are more suitable for men and others for women: engineers should be men, as they are most accustomed to being in environments similar to constructions; women should be waitresses or secretaries, as they are more used than men to being given orders and generally do them on time and in an organized way, etc. I did not say anything to him because I sensed that his mind could not be changed. Some organizations in Istanbul attempt to promote women empowering and change these long held beliefs, both in men and women, but it will take some time before the situation attains a total equality. I knew these beliefs and customs existed but not to that extent.

My two-week stay, for now, shocked me but also opened my eyes on something that my mother praises about this country: the generosity of the people. My mother gave me a thousand Turkish Lira but I only used a hundred of them. Every time the family and I went out, to the theater, to the restaurant, to the mall, they always paid for me. I experienced the same generosity with my mother’s friends and the persons I work with. They are more generous than my grandparents have been for the past few years. There was absolutely no distinction between their daughter and me. Their openness and generosity have made me love them as my own family.

I hold an ambiguous view about this country. It offers an incomparable generosity, making me cry every time I have to leave it. However, I know I would never be able to live there; I will never be able to accept this degree of misogyny and traditional view towards women.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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