A Peek at Turkish Women

Two women wearing the Hijab headscarf sitting on a bench on the Asian side of Istanbul enjoying the glorious spring day and the view across the Bosforus. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Visiting Istanbul for a few days does not put me in a position to make any reliable conclusions about Turkish women, so instead I want to share some photos and impressions.

I was intrigued by the chic use of the hijab headscarves with rather glamorous long trench coats cinched in at the waist with a belt, and colorful silk scarves.  At the airport today I saw one super-fashionable woman with a leopard skin headscarf, and tight black pants, and spikey black heels— if the intent was modesty, protection and a barrier between the sexes—I don’t think it was working.

Ataturk—the first leader of the Turkish Republic (see Istanbul Diary )– imposed laws changing the dress code for the entire country.  In what was called the Hat Law of 1925,   Ataturk’s government eliminated the use of the Fez, the little red hats once worn by Turkish men.  Then in a law on religious garments passed in 1935, the Ataturk government banned the use of religious costume in non-religious places.  Apparently this applied to all religions – Catholic Priests, Rabbis, and Imams were not allowed to wear religious dress outside their religious buildings.  Women were prohibited from wearing burkas and head scarves in public buildings.  This included schools and universities.  People in Istanbul told me that some very religious young women got around this law by going to school in wigs.  All that has changed now and it is quite common to see women all over Istanbul both with and without headscarves.

Turkish women on Tesvikiye Caddesi, a classy shopping street in Istanbul. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I wanted to write something about Turkish Mammas but I didn’t get very far.  My friend Gul told me that Turkish mothers are a bit like Italian Mammas, they do everything for their children, cook, clean, and do the laundry.  She said the mothers have a very tough side, they make all the decisions in the family but they make their husbands think that they have made the decision.

My Turkish-American brother-in-law, M, who was raised in Istanbul, explained to me the word for mother in Turkish is “Anne”.  He noted that his “Anne” was the one who made his bed when he was growing up and did most of the household work.

Below is a modern Turkish mother on the ferry with me crossing the Bosforus.

A Turkish Mother with her daughter on the ferry crossing the Bosforus from Besiktas to Uskudar. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Asian side of Istanbul is clearly more traditional.  As I walked along the shoreline I saw most women – young and old – with headscarves and long elegant trench coats.

But as I sat on a bench enjoying the view back across the Bosforus to the Golden Horn, I suddenly found a young Turkish couple in front of me, posing for their wedding photos in front of a little island with a tower on it.

Turkish Newlyweds posing for photos on Asian side of the Bosforus in front of Kiz Kulesi or the Maiden's Tower. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The island is called Kiz Kulesi or Maiden’s Tower and is surrounded by legend.  The story—sounding somewhat like a Turkish Sleeping Beauty scrambled up with Snow White and Rapunzel– goes that a powerful sultan received a warning that his beautiful young daughter would be bitten by a snake and die on her 18th birthday.  So he built a tower on a little island and closed the young maiden off from the cruel world.  But one day a fruit-seller paddled by on a boat and sold her a basket of fruit.  I can just imagine it filled with plump pomegranates, blood oranges, lemons and melons.  But in that colorful basket of fruit hid a poisonous snake, and it didn’t take long for it to bite the young maiden.

Stand selling fresh-squeezed juice from blood oranges, grapefruits and pomegranates, Photo by Trisha Thomas

As I sat there enjoying the view and contemplating the mix of customs, traditions, religions and cultures in Turkey, I tried to invent  the rest of the story –  the maiden fell under a deep spell, evil tides and waves making access to the tower impossible.  The years passed the the maidens long black braid grew and grew stretching down to the water.  One sunny spring day an Ottoman Janissary complete with long sword, big turban and long mustaches– having heard the myth of the sleeping maiden, rowed out in a boat, fought back the waves with the magic power of his sword, clamored up into the tower with the help of the long black braid, planted a kiss on her rosy lips and saved the day.

I guess that’s enough with my Istanbul fairy tales…



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    . . especially about the Janissary!! And especially if they turned their cooking pots upside down!

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    Loved the photographs. It is quite ironic that stilletto heels, tight pants and a head scarf can be considered modest but hurray for these women!

    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Lega. I was taking all this photographs with my blackberry which means I had no zoom so I had to get right up in people’s faces to take their pictures. That meant I had to stop them and try to explain who I was and what I was doing, even when they didn’t speak English. All the Turks –men and women– were open and friendly and didn’t seem to be bothered in the least to have their picture taken. I loved that about them. The women with and without headscarves were pleased and happy to be photographed.

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    Gretchen Bloom


    We almost made it to the famous island with the Maiden’s Tower.. Peter did.. Lina wanted to but did not… though like you we looked at it from shore and the ferries.

    One wonders how the story of the maiden in the tower would play today in Turkey where headlines like the following feature in the New York Times: “Women in Turkey fear rising barriers.” (See 26/04/1012)

    What is life really like for Turkish women today? And how will it evolve in the years to come?


    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas

      Gretchen, thanks for your comment. I did read the NYT’s article on Turkish women and it was quite discouraging. Here is the link below for anyone that is interested. http://nyti.ms/JR8Dqd


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