In some countries I’ve travelled to, I’ve found it difficult to connect with women. They are sometimes less visible and less free to be in public spaces mingling with tourists. This frustrates me. In countries where the genders are quite segregated, I find it especially difficult to meet women. Yet it is in these regions where I want to speak with other females the most.
As a “Western woman,” there are assumptions made about me by both non-western women and men. (I was asked by young boys in a conservative Muslim region of Turkey whether girls where I’m from did haram – or forbidden by Allah – things like wearing short-sleeved tops and short skirts. I can only imagine what they think of us if they’ve seen Hollywood films or Western porn!)
While there might be a curiosity about me, many women likely look down on me for my assumed (and unacceptable-to-them) behaviour. And men have their own expectations.
But I’m not exactly sure of women’s assumptions, as I don’t speak with them much on my travels to these regions. I leave with so many questions about women’s experiences, but do not usually connect with females in a substantial manner.
While I was in southeastern Turkey, I was taken to a small village outside of the city of Şanliurfa and welcomed for tea with the family. As I sat socializing with the men, the woman of the house served us, but otherwise kept to herself.
Before we left, I asked if I could use the washroom. At that point I had a chance to engage with the woman. The toilet was in an outer building, so she walked me over to it. As she did so, we passed two other women who were standing on the far side of the yard. We waved at each other enthusiastically.
I was only able to exchange basic pleasantries in Turkish with my female host, but there were many questions dancing behind our eyes when we looked at one another. It was a heartfelt but wordless goodbye when it was time for me to go. I left with more unanswered questions.
There is a different way of being a woman depending on the culture and environment around us. For me, my body feels foreign in places where I must cover up, for example, because the presence of other female bodies in public is limited. I begin to feel like I’m taking up space that doesn’t belong to me as a woman; my muscles tense up in defence; I become disembodied because feeling empowered physically seems to attract too much (of the already copious amounts of) attention I receive as a foreigner.
But it’s not as simple as saying that I feel restricted in conservative countries and free in liberal countries. In fact, I feel objectified in most places in the world, whether I’m wearing a bikini, a dress or am fully covered except for my face and hands. Actually, feeling objectified is the constant wherever I am in the world, probably due to the fact that I am a young woman and I often travel alone.
Which makes me curious about what it feels like to be a woman living in a conservative region and knowing only this environment (but being exposed to media from other parts of the world). What do they actually think of women from the “West”?