When in Urumqi, like in much of China, as a foreigner I was often categorized by my non-Chineseness first and my gender second. I remember reading a blog by a western woman traveling in Pakistan who noted that, while Pakistan society is highly gender-segregated, as a foreign female she wasn’t placed under the same expected female roles. Rather she was treated as androgynous, someone who could occupy ‘men’s space’ without her sex getting in the way. In China I was a teacher and a co-worker and a friend – but always a little bit apart. People who know you are a foreigner will treat you a bit as an object of marvel, a spectacle and spectator. And so it was perfectly fine for me to spend a week with two guys in Keriya in southern Xinjiang (one local and one Welsh-Mexican) hanging out, hiking desert dunes, shooting 30 second marsh zombie clips, and attending the male pre-weddding drum circle, just as it was fine for men and women of all ages to question me at all hours on the cross-desert train. Because I was foreign (and thus alien to the situation) before I was female.
But Turkey is close enough to the West that this no longer applies. And certain segments of Turkish society are very gender segmented, with strict lines defining the different roles of men and women – something I’m not very accustomed to, especially after my upbringing of co-op gardens, potluck dinners and multi-family camp outs where people mix and mingle regardless of gender and age.
Today I attended my first “kırk dökme”, or “forty day threshold” – a celebration held forty days after the birth of a child. In this case, it was the newborn son of a Turkish professor and his local Kyrgyz-German-Russian wife, and the celebration was held at a friend’s spacious flat. The man is somewhat religious, and thus the ceremony started with the women in the kitchen preparing food and a group of about twenty men reading several passages from the Qua’ran. None of the women present were headscarved (though one draped a frilled tablecloth over her head, until it got too hard to hold while chasing the half-dozen children scampering about the flat); some of the people present are followers of Gulen (or just have a suspicious attachment to Philadelphia); some are moderately or personally religious; and some are urban liberals. All of the women were in slacks or jeans. And yet even here there was a very clear divide. I first went in with E and we shook hands with everyone in the living room before sitting down for a bit, as we would normally do with his [quite secular] family. I then went into the kitchen to get some water – and noticed that none of the women were venturing out except to mind the rambunctious kids playing in a bedroom. The women mostly minded the food, with only one husband-father coming in during the reading to attempt to quiet his shrieking daughter with a quick game of indoor basketball. Women stirred and cleaned and served, and then hung back in the kitchen while the men ate, saying that there weren’t enough places to sit in the living room (though, ahem, there were extra chairs in the kitchen).
When talking to the women I realized that none of them work; every single one of them is a housewife, at least while in Bishkek. One woman I know well is quite unhappy about this state o affairs and only stays home because she hasn’t found a decent job here (and also hasn’t ventured out to make her own enterprise). But the rest seem satisfied with this role. One Kyrgyz girl (recently married to a Turkish man working at the university) bubbled with domestic contentment, explaining that she graduated in International Relations, worked for a bit, and now just gets to sit at home.
Not exactly wishing to sit through a recitation I stayed in the kitchen at first, happy to flex my Turkish. I then ventured out for dinner, taking the space next to E and chatting with the people around us we know from the tea garden or vet clinic or sports events. Most of the women stayed in the kitchen and ate only after all the men had been served. However, nobody in the living room seemed to think my presence amiss. I wasn’t the only female either – all the female children had settled down to eat with their fathers too. Which makes me wonder – to what extent is this sex segregation perpetuated by females who have no formal employment outside of the home as a way to carve out a space of their own, a space where they are needed and valued in their special role?
Either way, it is not a role for me – and so I find myself creating the delicate balance between blending in and remaining comfortable in my own skin. It’s always a dance at Turkish dinners in Bishkek when it really is the women trying to pull me back into the kitchen. But the kitchen isn’t my place, and my mother (and stepmother, and aunts, and grandmothers) didn’t work so hard to break down barriers just so I could sit and gossip over the stove.
On a related note: Just so we remember how diverse “Muslims” can be in their practices and beliefs, even within the same country, I was talking with my mother-in-law last night (back in Ankara for two weeks!) and mentioned this ceremony. Her take on it: “….Um, well, when my mother had her first child I think she did stay inside for a week. But that was just seven days, not forty, and this was back in the 1940’s when public sanitation wasn’t as good and there was real danger of a newborn getting sick. But then, after a week, everyone came over and celebrated and then my mother and her baby went out wherever and whenever they wanted”. To underline the variety found within ‘one’ culture, below is a photo of the said great-mother-in-law (age 83) at our wedding, short permed hair, sharp cardigan and all: