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Istanbul: Fascinating, Ancient, and Male

Street between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market

Being plagued with a nasty bought of jetlag did not minimize the awe effects of the old city of Istanbul. We arrived bleary-eyed at Atatürk Airport, having bounced through Germany for a couple of days between Seattle and Istanbul, a 10 hour time zone difference.

Upon arrival we took the well-established public transportation to our hotel, located in the old town, a mere half kilometer from both the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. After dropping our stuff in the tiny, albeit clean room, we alighted to the streets of this ancient and deeply historic city.

Blue Mosque and a Bird

Our brief 3-day vacation in Istanbul was purposefully free of work and meant as a travel experience. I unabashedly wore my camera around my neck and made no efforts to detract from my completely-apparent tourist status. These efforts, though, could not distract me, a feminist through and through, from knowing that the women in Turkey struggle for equality and that the inequality ratio is more pronounced here than in the West.

Understanding that Turkey is a culturally Muslim but politically secular nation made me curious as to what cosmopolitan Istanbul would harbor as its inhabitants. Would I see the gender inequalities? Would there be fewer women in public spaces? Would the people dress Western? Eastern? Somewhere in between? The first thing I noticed about the women was that they wore fewer head scarves than I had anticipated, and that the majority of the women who did don the head cover were very chic. Most women I saw (which means they were out in public spaces) wore fashionable skirts with jackets and hijabs. I also noticed that women in public spaces were mostly in transit. The majority of the people working in the restaurants, shops, tourist attractions, and just plain hanging out, were men.

Street between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market

The first (and most persistent) thing I noticed about the men, besides their abundance in public, was how they looked at me. I was clearly registered as female first and then, perhaps, a human being. My gender defined me. To my disappointment, I found myself relieved that I could lean into the masculine presence of my husband as a shield to the penetrating gazes of Turkish men. This felt like a failing on my part as someone whose purpose is to level the gender playing field.

Though I tried to concentrate on the aspect of being a traveler and enjoy the gorgeous and famous sites, I ran up against gender inequality in other ways. We spent hours in the Topkapi Palace, an intricate construction of halls, courtyards and rooms displaying artifacts of war and wealth. Our guide book spoke of Sultans and their endeavors – all from a masculine point of view. This is what men did. This is what men accomplished. The only place that women appeared in men’s accounts of men’s history is in the elaborate harem that was built to house and harbor concubines for the Sultans. The only women with relative power were the Sultan’s mother and his main wife.


The Hagia Sophia’s 1500 year history is replete with the doings and un-doings of men. The many mosques throughout the city were built and are used, mostly, by men; men are the muezzins intoning the 5 daily prayers; the tombs near the mosques clearly indicate on the grave sites if the deceased is a man by marking the grave with an informal turban. I found myself wanting to know the women’s side of things, where they influenced historical events and pushed society forward. What I was found was silence.

Regardless, I am a traveler at heart, not a historian and I loved my blip of a trip to Istanbul. My perspectives are feminist and Western, and it is from this standpoint I write. From this trip I take away hundreds of pictures, memories with my husband and a deeper conviction that my Work is far from done.

After receiving an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam in International Development Studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan African women's migration experiences, Danielle relocated to her home town of Seattle. She remains dedicated to women's issues both locally and globally, working for a domestic violence organization by day and, in her free time, blogging or volunteering for a project dedicated to gender equality called Stirring the Fire. Over the years, Danielle has volunteered in South Sudan, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Germany and New York in varying capacities with the same purpose: to work toward her global sisters' empowerment, equality and right to be heard. Though fiercely committed to women's rights, she's also an experienced Barista, English teacher and, most recently, amateur tri-athlete.

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    1. while your observations are all absolutely correct and relevant, Turkey (and Istanbul especially) are light years more progressive than the rest of the Muslim world in many ways, gender equality being one. Women are relatively free to wear what they choose, pursue work (and a life) outside the home and are even allowed to drive (i’m looking at you Saudi Arabia!) For these reasons and more, i think we should aspire to hold Turkey’s secular nature up as a positive example in a time of (potentially scary) change in the middle east. Conservative ideologies seem to be gaining steam in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, and in costrast Turkey’s moderation seems all the more remarkable (and fragile?)

    2. Interesting post (and Istanbul is top on my 2012 travel list, suggestions on where to stay welcome!). Although I’d be interested to hear your reaction to U.S. historical attractions/narratives. I don’t recall too many female perspectives in the tours I’ve done of Mt. Vernon, Gettysburg, or high school history textbooks etc (save maybe shout outs to the founding father’s wives). Gender relations are complex everywhere and although we carry our own perspectives with us, they aren’t the only ones out there. Sweeping generalizations about the ‘muslim world’ and ‘mulsim women’ – see above comment – (or ‘western women’ for that matter) can ultimately harm feminist discourse.

    3. I appreciate your comments about my post and agree that there are many perspectives out there. While I have not recently traveled to any historical places in the US, I would assume that my thoughts would reflect those I had in Istanbul: women’s voices/histories are still absent. My trip was brief and not intended to be a feminist analysis of the city of Istanbul, but rather a moment to suspend my constant engagement with gender (in)equality. My work in the US as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence highlights for me daily, the gender relations in my own country. You are right in saying gender relations are complex: they are. They also remain ultimately unequal around the world.

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