Friday, November 20, 2009

Nobody's Business but the Turks

In the background is the Hagia Sofia, also known as the Ayasofia, rebuilt as a church by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century, converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet the conqueror after his conquest of Constantinople, (formerly Byzantium, today Istanbul), and finally secularized by President Ataturk and turned into a museum. It's an architectural marvel and a fascinating religious symbol, covered in Islamic tile work, slowly being scraped away to reveal Christian images beneath.

In the foreground is a cat sitting on my lap, purring her head off. She really liked tummy rubs.

If there's two things Istanbul is full of, it's these: historic architectural marvels of the ancient Roman and Islamic world, and stray cats.

It makes some sense. According to some here, Napoleon once remarked that if the entire world was a republic, this city would be its natural capital. It was the capital of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It's the only place in the world I know of where you can take a ferry for about a dollar, cross to a different continent, and still be in the same city limits.

And as for the cats, the city is of full of fishermen at every dock and bridge to feed them, tons of tourists to lavish them with attention, and the craziest nooks and crannies you could ever hope for to explore and hide in. It's a pretty good life.

Like a lot of tourists, I spent a lot of time ogling things like the Topkapi Palace, containing what they claim to be Moses' staff, John the Baptist's skull, and an odd collection of Mohammed's teeth and bits of his beard. Then there was the magnificent Blue mosque, the only mosque outside of Mecca with six minarets (the towers from which we hear the call to prayer five times a day). And of course relaxing in a Turkish bath, sampling Turkish delight, and stuffing my face with kebab. Search “travel blog Istanbul” and you'll see similar stories about those.

I also met and petted a lot of cats. You might read something similar about that in those other blogs too.

So I'll write about something else. It starts with a local connection. Some of my best hosts on this trip have been connections that sound like something out of the Mel Brook's movie, Space Balls. This time, it was my father's colleague's identical twin sister. She invited me to a talk for an NGO about helping women entrepreneurs in countries like Turkey. Intrigued, I accepted.

I got to the talk and realized I'd gotten the concept backwards. I'd assumed I was coming to join a group of people, who generally wanted to do good in the world, listen to a speaker who was an expert in going to different nations and helping women entrepreneurs. Instead, I was in a room with some of the most powerful businesswomen in Turkey who had gathered to hear a motivational speaker who generally wanted to do good in the world.

So, the most interesting part for me wasn't the speech. It was the questions from these women leaders.

After the speaker went on for a bit about The Power Within You and how Nobody Can Lead Like You , and how We All Have The Same Goals and the effects of these Principles on Synergy, he opened the talk up to questions, so that he could try to address the specific concerns of women CEOs and business owners in Turkey.

They were not easy questions. A lot of them had to do with stories. One started with the phrase “Istanbul is not Turkey”. She went on to explain that she was the owner of her (Istanbul-based) business, and even in Anatolia, when she went to another company for a meeting or deal of some kind, the men there refused to believe she was the owner. Every time they spoke to her, they insisted on asking for her boss. They still cannot believe that a woman can own a business.

After a few more questions and stories like this one, the speaker came out with what he was really thinking:

“You know,” he said, “I think I'm giving this talk to the wrong people. It sounds to me like it's the men of Turkey who need the help, not you.”

The women laughed, and then looked around. Including me, there had been three men in the room at the beginning of the talk. Early on, both of the others had left. From the murmurs I heard in English, nobody seemed to know why.

That was one of two points that really stuck out for me. The other was a question posed by my host:

“I have always I wanted to be independent. I want to stand on my own two feet. Yet I also feel that I want to be a good Muslim. I asked one of the Muslim leaders I most respect about how I can unite these two principles. He told me that, after a time, I will enjoy being submissive, and that I won't feel the need to be independent anymore. I rejected that, yet I still feel a need for some connection to my faith. Something that doesn't conflict with my independence. How can I resolve this?”

Nobody had an answer for that.

Even in the car, before I was dropped off, one of her friends showed me something.

“Look at this, I have this on the radio.” She turned on the car radio and flipped through stations until we heard a man with a deep voice speaking evenly without any background noise.

“It's the Koran. Twenty-four hours a day. I listen to this in the car all the time, and I just can't stand it. I can't agree with Islam as I know it. I just wish there was something somebody could show me that could unite some of the principles we talked about tonight with the faith.”

It's funny. I'm used to giving advice to people on all sorts of things. Even if I don't have an answer, I usually have a few ideas, including for the other questions that had been posed that evening. But this time, I had nothing I to offer. All I know about “a woman's place” in Islam is what I'm fed by western media about extremist groups. I never believed that could represent mainstream Islamic thought. But if this night was anything to go by, maybe it's a bit closer than I realized.

With any luck, I'll learn more about this over the next few weeks.

EDIT Nov 22, 2009:
Just got this response from my good friend, Ayse, a Turkish-American dual citizen:

"The problem is, is that it's not mainstream Muslim thought if one looks at the amount of female doctors, lawyers, etc., in Pakistan, India, America, England, etc.. If you were to go back to Turkey in 1923, you'd find that there were women leaders in the revolution and, early on, many women in parliament.The world's first female fighter pilot was Sabiha Gokcen, a Turk and daughter of Ataturk. The problem, especially now, has been the AKP government and the regression of modernity in Turkey as a response to rejection by the West.

P.S. How many female CEOs are there in America? Not many."

I thought that ought to be shared. 

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. I don't think it is so much a problem with the way Islam is structured in and of itself. In a lot of ways the Koran was an improvement on the Bible in terms of Women's Rights (it attests to women's ability to own property and, though not without difficulty, divorce their husbands). What I think the issue your facing here is that the "Women Question" in Turkey isn't all that different than similar problems and questions all over the developed world. Just because the practice Islam doesn't make their feminist issues unique.

  2. Very true-- actually there was a woman from Vancouver who was visiting who made a point of saying that even if things in the west looked more progressive, women there were facing a lot of the same issues as here in Turkey. What I was referring to was more the questions very specifically asking "how can I be an independent woman and a Muslim woman at the same time." I just wanted to know where exactly the two come into conflict.

  3. And there are fundamentalist christians who believe exactly what that muslim leader said. I don't think the problem is religion per se, that's just the very convenient vehicle--one with a very large trunk for lots of cultural baggage.

  4. Very true. What struck me though, was that this was not a fundamentalist leader saying this. I expect fundamentalists of all stripes anywhere to say things like that. But this was a favorite leader of a very progressive woman in a secular country (even if Turkey is vast majority muslim, it is a secular nation). That's why I found it surprising.

  5. I am not even kidding, I have a picture of that exact same cat.
    - Sonja

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