26 May, 2010

Bubbles in the kahve

Buying tickets for the bus ride back from Antalya, one of Turkiye's little quirks made itself known. Again. It's not so much a Turkish quirk as one you'd find in any conservative Muslim country, but it's particularly troublesome if the only three unoccupied seats remaining on the bus all adjoin seats occupied by women - because if you're male, you're going to have to take the next bus. Unless you are traveling together, a man can't buy an unoccupied seat next to a woman. I'm not sure if this sexism operates in the other direction as well.

The bus ticket rule isn't usually a problem, since i notice (while waiting in the bus terminal) that if people are forced to choose a seat near a stranger, most of the time they choose a stranger of the same age and gender. It is, however, an excellent example of the way traditional gender roles are still an important part of Turkish culture.

The subject came up again on Sunday, when i met up with a fellow couchsurfer for the afternoon. Over here couchsurfing.org isn't simply a cheap way to travel; people, particularly students, use it as a social network to expand their horizons and meet foreign travelers (i've had several "coffee or a drink" messages from locals since i arrived). My companion for the afternoon, Duygu, had recently been granted a full scholarship to pursue her Ph.D. in postmodern philosophy in Germany, and while she has lived abroad before, she was eager to talk to others studying in a foreign land and lend her services as a guide.

So we were sitting at Kahve Dunyasi ("Coffee World", the national equivalent of Starbucks) and when our Turk kahvesi arrived, Duygu remarked how it was perfect with the thin froth on top. Her own attempts to make Turk kahvesi, she said, failed to produce the bubbles, a sign to her mother that she would be an inferior housewife.

Duygu explained that in traditiional courtship patterns, a suitor may visit his intended at her parents' home, and she'll make Turkish coffee to demonstrate her skill. Beyond the simple question of proficiency, it can take on ritual dimensions, and even become a subtle game. She might put salt in the coffee, for example, testing her suitor's tolerance, to see if he still smiles and compliments her work.

It's a cute tradition and all, but there's a dark side to traditional gender roles. In southeast Turkiye, honor killings - when a young woman is killed by a family member for alleged sexual misconduct - are still happening. And closer to home, the ties between feminism and GLBT issues can be felt. As the Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East points out, bisexuality and homosexuality are quite common in societies where men and women travel in rigidly separated spheres. (If Alfred Kinsey's theories could be taken a step further, individuals fall along a continuum of sexual identities regardless of their culture, however in cultures where opposite-sex encounters are societally limited, same-sex behaviors may be more attractive to individuals whose preferences are flexible.)

a comfort level much more common in Turkiye than the U.S.A.

Traditional gender roles and the boundaries they enforce allow a certain comfort level around same-sex affection here that has become rare in America, where feminism and increasing GLBT activism have given rise to a wary, reactionary style of masculinity. In Turkiye, friends walk arm-in-arm; men in the park nap using a friend's thigh for a pillow, and in the gym i see bodybuilders kiss in greeting - yet ironically the queer folk i know dare not walk hand-in-hand. On the Bilkent campus, i recently attended a public discussion on homophobia organized in response to an attack on two gay students. Those cultural norms that limit my choice of bus tickets have broad ramifications, both positive and negative.

I'd like to leave you with a matter for further thought: is it possible, as a culture experiences the growing influence of feminism and GLBT activism, to create a more open, tolerant, and equal society without making sexual identity and friendly affection the sensitive, awkward things they have become in American culture?