What Sexism Tastes Like in Istanbul

ChoraThis blog was originally posted in The Huffington Post on January 14, 2014.

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon in Istanbul. I’ve hit all the major sights and have had a wonderful time wandering the labyrinthine streets on my third day in this world-class cultural mecca. I’m just out of the lesser-visited, but spectacularly-preserved Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. I’m cold. I’m hauling around a chess set that I bought for my kids at the Grand Bazaar. And I have to go to the bathroom.

I would have been perfectly happy to drop a Turkish Lira (about 50 cents) to use one of the public restrooms. But I can’t find one. So I pop into a nice-looking hotel, hopeful that the front-desk manager will allow me to use the facilities.

I am greeted cordially, and directed to the bathroom in the restaurant downstairs. I have to traverse the entire room to get to my destination. I see white tablecloths. I spy European couples enjoying wine and an afternoon snack. The food smells fantastic, and the staff is friendly. I do my duty and decide to dine.

I will dine by myself because I am traveling alone. It’s not a dangerous proposition in Istanbul, but it is unusual. Istanbul is a progressive city in a secular country whose population is over 95 percent Muslim. As such, there are certain behaviors and customs that I must respect. For example, alcohol is served freely in Istanbul despite the fact that many conservative Muslims consider its consumption to be sinful. Dress for both men and women is more conservative than in the United States, and women in full burqas are not an uncommon sight. As in any foreign country, I am a guest and I take my cues from how the locals behave.

I’m thrilled when my waiter explains that the restaurant features recipes served during the Ottoman Empire. I select two dishes dated from the late 16th century: an almond soup with pomegranate seeds, and braised lamb with apricots and dates. I look around again to confirm that other diners are drinking wine. I have been presented a wine list, so I go ahead and order a glass of Turkish syrah.

My waiter explains that I can have two soups. I demure, claiming that I do not want to eat too much, and express my genuine excitement about the items I have selected. Truth be told, the other soups on the menu did not look all that appealing.

A few minutes later, my two soups arrive. The waiter does not explain what they are, and takes off before I can ask. I know that I had declined his offer, but for whatever reason, I’m now looking at two bowls instead of one. I wonder if the restaurant might be running out of almond soup.

One dish contains a white liquid with pulverized almonds. The other contains a chicken broth with minced tomatoes I discover some chestnuts at the bottom of the bowl, which are a nice surprise, but it’s otherwise uninteresting. I’m not quite finished with either dish when my waiter stops by to ask my opinion.

I am fully aware that free speech in Turkey is not the same as free speech in America. In Turkey, it’s illegal to publicly criticize the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Nonetheless, I had engaged in spirited intelligent discourse with a number of individuals in Istanbul. When the waiter asks my opinion about a soup that I didn’t want, I respectfully give it to him.

Oops. My plates are removed immediately.

When the waiter brings me my wine, I know something is wrong. The glass is almost completely full. It is an inappropriately large pour, something I would have delighted in at home. But served to an unaccompanied woman drinking in the afternoon in Istanbul, I take it as an insult.

My suspicion is confirmed when the server returns to tell me that he has looked at the lamb and it, “just doesn’t look good today.” He is going to bring me chicken. I’m disappointed. He’s just served me a generous glass of red wine which I am determined to try with red meat. I ask if I can see the menu to select something else.

The waiter returns with the chicken. I don’t see him again.

I ultimately receive a check-back from the floor manager. He is incredibly courteous. I explain that I had ordered lamb, but was served chicken. He seems perplexed. I receive my bill and am not charged for the entrée.

During the taxi ride back to my hotel, I realize that my lunch was not lamb or chicken or almond soup. I was served a big fat plate of sexual discrimination. Some may debate my interpretation of what happened. After all, discrimination is a subtle nuanced practice. But similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s comments describing obscenity, “…I know it when I see it.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have been treated differently if I were a man.

Fortunately in Turkey, recent legal action has set the stage to empower women with greater employment opportunities. Prior to this past October, women were discouraged from wearing headscarves when working in the public sector (as teachers, in governmental offices, etc.). The law that was recently overturned was meant to minimize the overt use of clothing to demonstrate religious beliefs. It was put in place decades ago during Atatürk’s secularization of Turkey. The ironic result of the law was that many women chose scarves over jobs. They refused to take positions which restricted their religious expression.
While the custom of being “covered” is foreign to me, the notion of female liberation is not. For the purposes of advancing women’s rights, a woman working in a headscarf is better than a woman not working at all. And I welcome the opportunity for Turkish women to someday soon serve their male counterparts a fresh bowl of chicken stew.

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