Turkey and "single blonde women"

Tips, comments and warnings for women traveling in Turkey.

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Turkey and "single blonde women"

Post by Su » Thu May 18, 2006 1:13 pm

I had originally posted this on the LP Thorntree. Caretta suggested I post here as well:

"As a long time lurker, I am posting for the first time because I want to say something about the often asked question about the safety traveling in the Middle East as a single blonde female. And maybe offer some tips. I apologize now for the long post.

First some background that is relevant to the topic: I am Turkish, and I am blonde. Not Scandavian blonde, but a natural blonde nonetheless. Maybe for that reason, but more likely because I have lived abroad for a long time and something about my general demeanor has changed as a result, I am often mistaken for a tourist when I take my foreign friends to Sultanahmet. In my daily life I wear regular "Western" attire-the same things I wore when I lived in the US (and also before I went abroad). I do not change the way I dress when I visit touristic areas, with the possible exception of choosing more comfortable shoes.

I mention all of this because disregarding occasional stare, I do not really get harassed in Istanbul. Just two weeks ago, I took a female friend, who is from the US (and is very blonde) to the Sultanahmet region. We walked around several days without any trouble on that front. Of course there were a few botched attempts at carpet sales (dropped the moment they realize I am Turkish) but no unwanted attention of the sexually harassing kind.

I do not want to trivialize the experience of anybody who has visited Istanbul and suffered this kind of experience. But the discrepancy between my own experience and some female visitors have made me wonder what I was doing differently (as a Turkish woman) that fended off these kind of advances. Because it has nothing to do with how you look.

Here is what I came up with:

1) Do not make conversation if strange men approach you. Do not even respond.
2) Do not smile around as you are walking down the street.
3) If you are walking down the street and people are trying to talk to you, just ignore them. Look straight ahead and pretend and act like they do not exist.

Basically as a woman, act stand-offish and aloof. This doesn't mean you cannot look around, but you should control your own gaze. If you are looking around, and your eye meets the eye of some eager guy, immediately look elsewhere to signal you are not interested. In Turkish culture, holding eye contact is a signal of potential interest. It is the first move. There is even a slang word for it ("kesmek").

Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city. Most tourists unfortunately never leave the tourist ghetto of Sultanahmet. In other parts of Istanbul, Taksim for instance, nobody hardly gives anybody a second look regardless of what language they speak or what they wear. Being in Sultanahmet potentially multiplies the number of these kind of incidents for two reasons. First, everybody in Sultanahmet who is not a tourist is trying to sell something to tourists. So they are predisposed to give you attention you do not want, sexual or otherwise. Second, most people who work in tourism, especially on the street level, are not from Istanbul and are recent immigrants or they are not that well educated or both. Why does this matter? Because that means that they are not yet fully socialized into the norms that control relationships between sexes in the West and in the urban centers of Turkey such as Istanbul.

Because it is a developing country and not all regions change at the same pace, groups with different cultural norms have to coexist in Turkey. In Istanbul, members of these groups have to interact on a daily basis. So take some guy who has just arrived from Eastern Turkey. Where he is coming from women and men do not interact. They do not have casual conversations as friends. For him, a woman talking to him or smiling at him or holding eye-contact with him means she must be interested.

What women who ask the dreaded question of single blonde female do not realize is that there are millions of Turkish women in Turkey who go about their daily business, alone, not wearing a burqa (carsaf) or a headscarf, who may or may not be blonde, who may or may not be wearing miniskirts etc. We have to interact with the guy described above as well. We make sure that he does not misread our actions by making it absolutely clear that he has no chance. He ceases to exist the moment he enters our personal space. The only interaction we have is for business transactions (initiated by us).

If you try this approach you will find it is more effective than cursing or shouting etc. Because if you act standoffish from the very beginning he will respect that. He is culturally programmed to. These guys have two kinds of categories of women they respect (the unsexualized mother/aunt and the chaste girl). If you cannot pull off the matron act, you have to be the chaste, standoffish, cold girl. Again, this has nothing to do with clothing or hair color.

I also have to say that I find it incredibly insulting if somebody asks "I am a single blonde female traveling to the Middle East, what should I do?" and somebody responds "Oh, respect their culture, wear a head scarf and all will be fine." This is like advising a woman who is planning to travel to the US to get breast implants because it is "their culture". I do not have anything against Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf, but to advise tourists to do so in the name of respecting "culture" gives too much deference and power to a particular group within that culture who do not represent everybody (in the case of Turkey, they definitely do not represent even the majority of women).

Once again, sorry for the long rant. I cannot speak for other countries, but I hope my post clarifies some things with regards to traveling to Turkey as a woman.

PS: There are plenty of normal men in Istanbul. Just go to Beyoglu. Read the Time Out for advice on where to go."

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Post by suppiluliuma » Thu May 18, 2006 8:51 pm

WOW, Turkey is proud of you! I have two objections though : 1 - You mentioned very little positive reference about Turkish men - just in the last sentence - "there are plenty of normal men" which may be interpreted like "you can hardly find normal men in Turkey, they only live around Beyoglu district" 2 - I don't accept that Turkey is a Middle-East country...well... obviously not western either, but definitely not Middle-Eastern. I think we can say "different". :)
In general...I agree with you.
Come whoever you are...
just come as you are

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Post by Su » Mon May 22, 2006 12:17 am


I did not mean to imply that only normal men are in Beyoglu. I said Beyoglu only because tourists are more likely to visit Beyoglu than Nisantasi, Etiler or Fenerbahce :)

I might also agree with you on the Middle Eastern issue. However, the original posting was on LP thorntree, and Lonely Planet has put Turkey on the Middle Eastern branch. I thought maybe my advice could have some general relevance for someone who is traveling to Lebanon or Israel as well.



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Post by WWWatchdog » Mon Jul 03, 2006 6:22 pm

In another topic I just advised women travelers to bring a headscarf as a sign of respect. What I meant was to wear IN the mosques.

No mosque we visited in Istanbul REQUIRED that women wear head coverings... but I did, just to be respectful. I did not wear them anywhere else. Modern Turkish women dress like everywhere else, folks.

Loved the people and every place we visited in Turkey...

Bodrum, Selcuk, Ephesus, Izmir, Bergama and Istanbul. Will return.

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doing business in Turkey

Post by Lorelei » Thu Jul 06, 2006 6:41 pm

Your suggestions and information were very valuable. Thank you. I am about to travel to Ankara for two days the end of July to hopefully create a partnership with a manufacturer in Turkey.
I am a blonde (married) female who will be travelling with two male coworkers. I will be the primary contact for our company and will conduct most of the business.
I suspect that your clothing attire comments were primarily for travel and tourism. I could use suggestions on business attire. Should I plan to wear a dress? skirt (is knee-length okay?)? or should I plan to wear pants with a blouse? Heels? Or flats? Ohhhh, so many choices!
In the US, I have been taught that strong eye contact during presentations, or even while others are talking, is a sign of confidence and strength. Any thoughts on how to curtail any miscommunication with the opposite sex...

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Post by Pollyanna » Sun Oct 15, 2006 11:37 am

Dear Su,
Excellent post.
I would like to use your posting in another venue. Can you please contact me so we can discuss? j g o k m e n @ e x p a t h a r e m . c o m
Jennifer (pollyanna)

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Post by Tavsan » Sun Oct 15, 2006 6:39 pm

I think the "single blonde female" questions are warranted because stereotypes are still reinforced both about single blonde females and foreign countries.

Some people are still in 1906 or 1806 instead of 2006 with regard to what they know about the rest of the world. A single female who makes it known that she will be traveling alone will be told all kinds of horror stories no doubt. "Why did you hear about Binky McGillicuddy, Lilly's neice from out East? She went to Turkey and well she's so fair skinned and blonde haired that the 'natives' over there made her their goddess, that is until the Sultan tried to kidnap her for his harem!" :wink:

The advice here is pretty solid. I think it is good to ask a lot of people and inform yourself. I have had people ask me about blonde haired people in Turkey. They are always surprised to see pictures of my wife's family in Turkey where there is every shade of the hair color spectrum. I always make it a point to tell them that just as in the US some of the blonde haired people in Turkey dye their roots black. :shock:

As far as being approached by people. Good advice from some of the other folks here. Limit eye contact and keep walking whether they are coming on to you or trying to sell you something, it doesn't matter. I remember being in Kusadasi during a "down day" for cruise ships and turning to my wife to say, "I gotta get out of here!" I'm not blonde or female but a balding old man. :o Yet I was a tourist. I looked like a tourist and I was subjecting myself to shopping in Kusadasi on a day when there were a limited number people like me. They assumed I was there to shop. I would have received similar attention on Canal Street in New York City.

Turkish men? Eh men are men anywhere. There are good ones and not so good ones. Everybody has a Turkish man story. If you listen to some accounts of tourists who have married Turkish men after knowing them for only two weeks on vacation in Antalya you start to realize that you rarely hear the good stories about Turkish men and you start to wonder about people who go on vacation and come back engaged to someone they have only known for two weeks! 8) You will hear the good stories here I might add. Just as there are people who will try to take advantage of you there are always many many more who are just plain decent wonderful people. Such is the case with men in Turkey.

Good news is Turkey still believes in hospitality and generosity and national pride is still consider bigger than one's self. The majority there still try to leave you with a better than "good impression" of their country. As far as safety? I remember being in the busiest part of Ankara around 5PM one day and seeing a fellow get snippy with the woman he was walking with and he grabbed her by the arm shaking it rather firmly. Within the blink of an eye about five people were all over this guy verbally. It didn't look right and he got reprimanded immediately. Does this happen everywhere? Of course not but if something does start to go down there are still good people in this world who recognize it and who will step in to assist. Turkey is no different and in many cases perhaps better than most places in this regard when it comes to visitors.

You do the right thing by asking and finding out before you get there.

Last edited by Tavsan on Mon Jan 08, 2007 1:51 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Su » Mon Oct 16, 2006 9:27 am

Dear Jennifer-
I sent you a reply from my private email (a "wisc" address).

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Post by Basat » Mon Nov 20, 2006 11:44 am

I agree %90.
I would add a few more facts,but i preffer not to because it is not so nice to say . There is a visible accelareted corruption since the year 2000 mainly because of Rahsan remission and some certain tv series... But i can say it is still way safer than San Fransisco or New York...

Also i find insulting "single blonde goes to middle east" story.

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Post by Karagul » Sat Jun 02, 2007 2:30 pm

As a tall blonde with blue eyes I must agree with a lot of Su's post. The only places I have encountered problems are SultanAhmet and Erzurum. Sultanahmet is just one big tourist trap and they are more interested in getting you to open your wallet than anything else. However, I did have one jerk come up to me and ask me if I was a natasha (prostitute). Probably because I was in the Lalelei district, but I don't know how he came to that conclusion given that I was wearing capris, a tee shirt and a jacket. Much can be avoided by just keeping to oneself and looking like you know where you are going and don't want to be bothered.

Erzurum on the other hand, is natually a conservative city and I made trouble for myself by insisting on going on a bike ride with my sister-in-law. She advised against it and was right- we had men following us in cars making lewd comments the entire time. It's not really much of a tourist attraction except for skiiing at Palandokken, but a woman MUST dress conservatively in that city and follow local customs or she can expect a lot of tsks and disapproving stares.

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