So you plan to visit Istanbul. Great choice! It’s a beautiful city with lots of things to do and see, from the sweeping views of the Bosphorous to the breathtaking Hagia Sofia. It truly is like nowhere you’ve ever been before, and that extends to the culture as well.
The gender roles in Turkey are different than in your home country. But don’t assume that they’re worse – in many ways, Turkey is actually a very progressive country when it comes to women. The country has had a female head of government as well as a female supreme court justice, and many people identify as feminists.
But again, many aspects of the society are different than what you may be used to in your home country. While it is a fairly modern society, there are still some things that you should be aware of as a western women visiting or living in Turkey.
Ideas on how to dress appropriately
What you should wear depends on the neighborhood you’ll be in. If you’ll be visiting tourist areas like Sultanahmet or Ortakoy, you don’t need to think much about what to wear. A lot of westerners frequent those areas, and so your typical style of dress should be more-or-less acceptable.
However, there is a certain style of dress that’s required when you visit a mosque. Your legs, shoulders (and most of your arms) and head must be covered. Thankfully, many of the mosques, such as the Blue Mosque, provide these coverings free of charge if your everyday clothing is too casual.
Should you venture outside the “touristy” areas, you may want to consider dressing more conservatively simply for your own comfort. In my experience, wearing things like sundresses or shorts and a tank top can attract a lot of unwanted attention. Even an outfit that you might consider modest by your country’s standards (such as a sleeveless dress that falls to the knees) could be considered revealing in certain areas of Istanbul.
A general rule of thumb I’ve come to live by is that it’s basically acceptable to wear something that reveals your shoulders, or something that exposes your legs, but you shouldn’t wear something that exposes both.
(It’s worth noting that even if you don’t follow these rules, nothing bad will happen to you. But dressing more modestly is a way of showing respect, and you’ll get more respect in return.)
If you want to blend in, consider adopting the sleek-casual style of many Turkish women. Leather jackets, skinny jeans, sneakers or boots, and statement jewelry are some of the more popular items. Many of the women tend to favor dark or neutral colors over bright ones.
Thoughts on men and women
Since Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, travelers have the idea that it must be a society where women are subservient or second-class citizens. That’s largely untrue. As with any society, there are a variety of attitudes towards women.
Many of the Turkish people I’ve met in my adventures are also in their early 20s. They’ve been extremely hospitable, kind, funny, and warm to be around. Having grown up in the city, they are excited to show me some of their favorite spots and tell me about the history of various areas. Several have also kindly warned me about areas to avoid or be cautious in. And others have talked about how men and women interact.
One man from my university said “Since a lot of the men have grown up in a religious culture where you can’t do anything until marriage…a lot of that tension gets built up until…” and he made an exploding gesture with his hands. We both were laughing, but there was some truth to his words. Without any kind of romantic experience with the opposite gender, the social interactions can be colored a little differently.
For example, making eye contact or smiling (as I tend to do) can be seen as an invitation or flirtation. Depending on how comfortable you feel, you might want to avoid doing these things.
But at the same time, meeting people is one of the best parts of travel!
A few days ago, I glanced over and made accidental eye contact with a man who was swimming in the Bosphorous Strait. As he was climbing out, he started walking next to me, and we had a great conversation about some of the things I should do in Turkey. And then he bid me “Güle güle” (goodbye) and jumped back into the water to meet his friends who had been carried by the current.
When it comes to social interaction, go with your gut. If you don’t feel comfortable, just walk purposefully and look straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. No one ever bothers me when I do this.
Don’t be afraid
Overall, Turkey is a very safe and hospitable country. Keep your bearings, but also allow yourself to be immersed in the experience of exploring this chaotic, beautiful, incredible city and all that it entails.The people are kind, the culture is amazing, and you’ll have a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If Turkey isn’t the only stop on your Euro-trip check out these other must-see destinations.