The first day of my Journey to Turkey was admittedly less than ideal. My first flight was delayed, I missed my connection, and I lost my luggage. My first few hours in Turkey consisted of me trying to explain what my luggage looked like and where it was supposed to be to people who didn’t speak English very well. I actually cried when I saw Jaci (the OU Study Abroad faculty member who came on the trip) at the airport to pick me up; I was so relieved. My mood did start to improve the next day, however, when we started to see the incredible artifacts and over 1,000-year-old buildings that make Istanbul so unique. While I was learning about Turkey’s rich history, I was confronted head-on with the fact that I knew so little about the country and its culture. It quickly became clear to me that I had some very inaccurate preconceived notions about Turkey and its people.
One of my most significant misconceptions about Turkish Muslim life in general was my impression concerning what a harem was. To be honest, the picture that immediately pops into my head when I hear the word “harem” is a bunch of scantily clad women wearing sheer veils over their nose and mouth dancing in a dimly lit room. When I pictured Leyla, a woman in Birds Without Wings (a book we were required to read for Professor Demir), in her harem, I imagined her in suggestive clothing in a dark room, even when Philothei and Drosoula (who are Leyla’s young hand maidens) were there with her. But when we visited Topkapı Palace on our first full day in Istanbul, I learned that this image is not actually what a harem was like. The harem was simply the living space of the women and children, no different in appearance than other parts of a residence. When I realized that my mental image was so wrong, I started to understand that my misconception of the nature of harems relates to the West’s misconceptions about the East. I had never before seen a harem (and really neither had anyone else, except for the Muslim families who lived in them years ago). But I still had a defined, albeit inaccurate, picture of what they were, because so many people had used that image to describe them. But they really had no authority to tell me what a harem was like, as they had never been there either.
One of the very first concepts we discussed in class was orientalism, which is a Western way of viewing the world that emphasizes the differences between the East and the West, while painting a very homogenous picture of Eastern culture. In other words, those who have orientalist tendencies think that all of the non-European cultures are very different from Europe, but that those non-European cultures are very similar to one another. We read a piece on orientalism by Edward Said. In it, Said discusses about how the “West” thought they were experts on everything about the “East,” and they used this alleged superiority to validate occupying nations in the East. He cites the career of Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), who was the 1st Consul-General of Egypt. In the eyes of the British, Cromer was apparently qualified for this position, as he had spent time in India. And as far as the Brits were concerned, Egypt and India are the same because they are both in the East. He took his idea that the British government needed to have a strong hand over the nations it inhabits from India, and transplanted it in his policy in Egypt. But there was no way Cromer could have really known Egypt because he had never fully experienced it. I did some further research and found out that Cromer did not even speak Arabic. Cromer was obviously a bit more extreme, but just I had a clear image of a harem without ever seeing one, Cromer had a clear view of what he thought Egypt needed without knowing the people. I think the West is constantly striving for a feeling superiority over the East, so we tend to generalize the culture of all the countries in the East while exaggerating and sensationalizing the little things that are different between “us” and “them.”
As our journey continued, I noticed even more of my misconceptions coming to light. One of my most significant misconceptions was that regarding the headscarf. As I walked through Istanbul, especially outside the Süleyman the Magnificent Mosque, I saw almost every form of the headscarf possible. I saw all different colors and patterns, various levels of covering, some women who had hair showing, some who had no hair out of place. Even the way the women’s hair was styled underneath the covering was different. This degree of individuality these women displayed in their head coverings seemed to contradict everything the West “understands” about the hijab. Our media tends to radicalize the headscarf, claiming that it is a sign of the oppression of women in the name of Islam. People in the West commonly believe that Muslim women have to wear the headscarf and that they would be ostracized if they did not. This simply is not the case. According to a 2008 Gallup poll, only 45% of Turkish women wear a headscarf in public, while 52% do not wear a headscarf at all. During a class discussion we had while sitting in the courtyard of Süleyman’s Mosque, we talked about the fact that for many women, to wear or to not wear a headscarf is a personal choice. There are many families in which the grandmother wears a traditional headscarf while the granddaughter does not. I saw girls who were covered from the roots of their hair to their toes walking side-by-side with girls dressed very similarly to the way I dress.
There is no conflict among these families or these friends, as it is a personal choice to cover. Women who wear the hijab do not ostracize their sisters, daughters, friends who do not. But I did not know that before coming to Turkey. I thought (based on the Western “knowledge” that I had accumulated on the subject) that the social and religious pressures would dictate that women should wear headscarves, and that’s just the way it is. I am so lucky that I got to go on this trip. I learned things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Our society does not really value learning about cultures that lie east of Western Europe, and I think that’s a real shame. With the knowledge and experiences I’ve gleaned from this trip, I will try to move forward with a more accepting and curious mindset when I encounter new cultures.