Friday, July 27, 2012

Istanbul: Cultural Exchanges, Part 2 or: Cultural Ignorance

Hanafi Islam

Hanafi Muslims? What the hell? Who are they? Why had I never heard of them? I only knew about two branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia.

Well, it turns out that Hanafi Islam is a stream within the Sunni branch (this link is probably the most interesting), is known to be more liberal in some matters than Americans generally see in our media. Also, most Muslims in the world are not only Sunni, but followers of the Hanafi "madhab." 

"Alican," "Bali," and Bali's cousins are all Hanafi. All are also Kurds.

Women with hijabs, smiling

Why did I feel surprised when I saw women wearing hijab smiling, embracing and being embraced by their men, kissing? Seeing a couple, the woman with her hijab, gazing into each others' eyes for long minutes on the tram?

Such universal ordinariness.

I can't speak for anyone else, so I'll just speak for me. Why is it that the visceral images I have about the wearing of hijabs are oppression and humorlessness? Kind of the same way I perceive Puritans to have been.

("Hijab" is a generic term that applies to any of the modesty covering of Muslim women, whether it's just the headscarf or full-out burqa. This link notes the four countries in the world that actually ban hijab in certain places - note: not just hijab, but all 'overt religious symbols.')

Indeed, the author of an ehow article on Puritans pretty much summed up my emotional (versus intellectual) response to the hijab:

The Puritans who settled in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries have been largely mythologized as a small group of people who lived a life devoid of pleasure, shunned alcohol and sex, and lacked humor or compassion for other people. In fact, despite living a hard frontier life in a foreign land, the Puritans did experience the same pleasures as others but in moderation. Their way of life called for discipline and a devotion to God.

Intellectually, I know that my emotive response does not comprise the full picture of the lives of women who wear hijab.

But on a gut level, that mental model of unrelenting grimness evidently lurked inside my head.

There's a lot more I'd like to say on the topic of hijab, but for today, it's just to recognize and own up to an inaccurate assumption I didn't know I had. 

Christians aren't Christians

To the Kurds, anyway, Christians are "muhSEE-ah."

I didn't get that at first. They mentioned muhSEEah. MuhSEEah?

Ohhhhh, got it ... "messiah" as in Jesus ... Christian.

(Again, the importance of emphasis and pronunciation for understanding. Reminds me of the McDonald's debacle.)

You either respect women or you don't

Based on my anecdotal evidence (personal observation, personal experience, and information from other visitors): The Turkish touts (and regular man on the street) make comments to and invade the personal space of women they identify as Other.

I don't want to waste brain power parsing what I mean by Other because I don't know how they define Other. All I know is I observed them "taking liberties" (a phrase that should be brought back into fashion perhaps) with some women and not others. The 'not others' tended to be women who wore outward symbols of conservatism, such as hijab.

Some examples:  
  • There was, of course, the day one of my colleagues had her ass groped quite thoroughly.
  • A fruitseller decided to handfeed me a portion of watermelon, pushing it into my mouth, startling the heck out of me and eliciting a noise of disapproval from his male partner because the fruitseller knew it was inappropriate
  • One man went from zero to "honey" and then to a presumption of something quite a bit more from me despite clear no-trespassing signals from me.

The evening that Bali and his family and I went out to the Bosphorus rocks, as we returned to our hotel, a tout thrust out his hand to me for a handshake (the prelude to getting me into his shop). My normal response in Istanbul was to ignore this behavior even though all of my American-politeness cells would scream at me to accept what Americans interpret as an act of friendliness. But I'd been chatting with Bali as we walked, and my polite reflex kicked in, so I returned the handshake.

Damn it, now the dance began immediately, "Can I ask you one ...." "No."  And I kept on going as I removed my hand from the tout's.

Bali was taken aback by the tout's behavior. I said, "They don't do this to your wife, do they"? [Bali and his family were tourists like me.]


And I told him about my colleague's experience (being groped) and added, "You know, people sometimes assume women are whores just because of where they're from and feel it's OK to do these things. It's not OK. We don't like it. And it's just as disrespectful to us as it would be to your wife."

When I talk about this stuff to Americans, generally women, a common response is, "what were you/they wearing"? As if that were relevant.

In my view, you either respect women or you don't. To see it otherwise is just another refrain of the "rape is the woman's fault" song. If you wouldn't say or do something of a personal nature to a countrywoman, then don't say or do it to a woman visiting your country. What the visitor is wearing does not dictate respect. 

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