What to Wear in Turkey

September 30, 2010
gp, safety, study abroad, turkey
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I traveled to Turkey last January for a semester as an exchange student at Bogazici University in Istanbul. I ended up staying through the summer and working at a newspaper: the Turkish Daily News. One of the most important contemplations of my stay was of gender, specifically in regard to female clothing.

When figuring out what to wear in Turkey, I chose, for the most part, to dress much as I do in New York, perhaps with slightly longer skirts and higher necklines. This is acceptable for foreigners in all areas of Turkey unless traveling in the Eastern part of the country, where almost all women cover their heads and bodies in observance of the Muslim tradition of modest dress.

But in Istanbul, as in any major city, the women adhere to an array of different styles of dress. Some women wear burkas, some hijabs, others hijabs and underscarves. And there are those who have fake nails, breasts and fake blonde hair color and those who dye their hair with black or red henna bought at the spice bazaar.

Women choose to dress to indicate specific things about themselves including faith, political leanings and how they wish to be treated by men.

The ways women choose to dress in Turkey is complicated by a political and social web they exist within. Women choose to dress to indicate specific things about themselves including faith, political leanings and how they wish to be treated by men. I am no expert in this subject and cannot go into the details of what the different ways of dressing express.

However, I find it is often the tendency of Westerners to think of more covering as more oppression for women, but it is much more complex than that in Turkey.

Late in the summer, I decided to go to MOS, a salon in Nisantasi, Istanbul, catering mostly to what Americans might call the liberal elites. I was in desperate need of a haircut and a little homesick, and I figured the salon would be a comfort and as similar to one at home as I could get.

American women often point their fingers at Muslim women who cover their head.

I was trying to communicate how I wanted my hair cut. Then, I began to look around at the other women at MOS. Many of the women had come in just to have their hair dried or their make-up done or sparkly jewels placed in their curls, and we paid sums equal to the average Istanbulite’s monthly salary for these services.

Most of the women had clearly undergone plastic surgery. They spent ample time and money buying their clothing and dressing.

Perhaps this truly brought them personal joy. But, for me, at that moment, it felt as if we were all trapped in a system. Which we pretended brought comfort, but which really kept us spending our time and money fashioning ourselves into clones of each other.

I find it is often the tendency of Westerners to think of more covering as more oppression for women, but it is much more complex than that in Turkey.

People tend to point fingers. American women often point their fingers at Muslim women who cover their heads or bodies and either pity or look down on them, unadmittedly of course. But being in Turkey showed me I am in no position to point fingers.

Women of different cultures have grown up with different ideas of how to indicate their personalities and leanings with their physical choices. I don’t, for example, walk down the streets of New York in my underwear, because I would consider it immodest. In some ways, maybe we’re all oppressed or we all live within systems that keep us enclosed within cultural boundaries.

In general, Turkey is an incredibly interesting place to be a woman. I highly recommend visiting.

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Have you traveled to Turkey? What were your impressions? Email us at editor@pinkpangea.com for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you!

What to Wear in Turkey top photo credit: unsplash.com

About Juliana Devries

Juliana DevriesJuliana Devries studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey.

One thought on “What to Wear in Turkey

  1. Avatar
    Catherine
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    Thank you for this post, Juliana! I’m glad you had the chance to live here in Istanbul for a while to uncover the many layers of nuance about how women dress here. It is not simple for a short-time visitor to understand. You are right to compare the Western obsession about youth, cosmetic surgery, fashion, etc with the more traditional or religious ways women dress. All variations are here in Turkish society – you’ll see everything! In my 12 years here, I decided that it’s a very personal thing made quite political, when really everyone should have the right to dress as they choose, period.

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