My flip flops are a dead giveaway that I’m foreign. I’m considering tossing them in the trash because of what happened this evening, maybe shipping all my fashionable knee-length dresses home and implementing a stricter dress-code.
Tonight I wore what might be classified as a cocktail dress with my flip flops to the mall to meet my Turkish conversation partner. I sat in the same place we met last time, the food court. I really just wanted to finish my sandwich and enjoy my Kindle book until he arrived. The mall overwhelms me in a way that only Kindle or conversation partners can calm. In between bites of my dinner and watching a fully-cloaked woman beat her daughter and yank her braids as punishment for putting her feet on the table, a conservatively-clothed woman approached me.
This woman’s face came aggressively close to mine. She pointed to my slight cleavage rising from my neckline and to my legs. She spoke Turkish the whole time in a tone that indicated she felt nothing but disapproval and disgust for the way I presented myself in public. Then she pointed to her little boy sitting at another table. The boy looked to be about ten years old. His eyes were curious. Maybe he wondered where I was from or why I had lipstick on my chin. (Sandwiches have a way of distributing my Mac Chili-colored lipstick all around my face.)
This woman must have thought I was corrupting her little boy with the flashiness of my flesh. In her eyes, me eating a sandwich in the mall and getting lipstick on my chin was akin to some tawdry Carl’s Jr commercial starring some bikini-clad, cheeseburger-chomping, juice-dripping, carwash-performing woman.
I slammed my phone down on the table in fury. I picked up my things. I was too angry to stay seated and too hurt to stay silent. “There is nothing inappropriate about the way I am dressed!” I yelled. “I am doing nothing wrong! If you don’t want your son looking at women, don’t take him to the mall!”
I stormed away, just as my conversation partner was rounding the corner. “Don’t apply lipstick to your chin,” he advised me teasingly. I wiped it off with one hand and he saw that I was shaking. I told him what happened and he listened attentively. Normally, I don’t blow my stack at anything that aggravates me, but this woman gave me a horrific flashback to my time living in Qatar, back where women dressed like ravens would hand out cards to foreigners like me, telling us we were inappropriately dressed and reminding us to be respectful of Muslim society.
I said I didn’t feel comfortable in the mall anymore and that I’d like to have our lesson in my apartment. On the way there, I ranted about bans or proposed bans on burqas and niqabs across Europe, how hypocritical it is that women who would object to being ordered to remove Islamic dress in one country would shame another woman for showing “too much” skin in their own county.
This has never happened to me in Turkey before.
I tried to see this woman’s perspective to understand why she was upset with me. I presume she wants to make Turkey into a country more like Saudi Arabia, and if she’s Shia, Iran. In Saudi Arabia or Iran, I would have been arrested for wearing my cocktail dress and flip flops out in public, and probably charged with lewd and lascivious conduct. If the dress didn’t prove my depravity, then inviting my male conversation partner over to my apartment surely would have.
In my apartment, I lit incense and candles and poured myself a glass of wine to relax. My conversation partner assured me that my experience at the mall was just a weird fluke. Most Turks are not like that, he said. But I have only been back for two weeks and already, I’m being singled out. It’s only a small comfort that most Turks are not in the habit of condemning Western clothing styles. But some of them are being carried away in an avalanche of anti-Americanism and that “some” is far too many.
I will pack my nice dresses away and wear them only when I go to Europe or when I return to the States. I hate giving up any freedoms to which I’m accustomed, but the truth is, I live in a conservative neighborhood and I have to be careful. Still, I can’t help but wonder: Where is Ataturk when we need him?!