The hidden flesh of Turkey, part 2: the exotic among the exotic

It’s a handshake deal that initially seems good for both sides: with Turkish women entering the workforce in large numbers today, Turkmen women provide an indispensable service — at a high personal and cultural cost. neweurasia’s Annasoltan goes on a personal journey in Istanbul for answers.

Photograph by Flickr user Kıvanç Niş (CC-usage).

Photograph by Flickr user Kıvanç Niş (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: It’s a handshake deal that on the first impression pays off for both sides.  With Turkish women entering the workforce in large numbers today, my countrywomen provide an indispensable service.  But it’s coming at a high personal cost for them.  Not only that, but their presence has caused Turks and Turkmens, two peoples close ties, to turn on each other. neweurasia’s Annasoltan goes on a personal journey in Istanbul for answers.

In my last post I gave the backdrop of the situation for illegal Turkmen immigrants working in Turkey.  Turkmen women in particular, along with Moldavian and Georgian women, have been stigmatized  in the Turkish media as prostitutes or as unethical and cheap sex workers.  Among other things, they have been accused of seducing married men.

In November 2008, Sinan Akyüz, a Turkish newspaper columnist for Sabah on relationship issues between men and women, called Turkmen women “nannies with golden teeth”, “ugly”, and “opportunistic”.

[The threat of] Russian women is far behind; now the nightmare of Turkish wives are Turkmen women, many of whom are married at home [in Turkmenistan], with kid.  I ask Turkish men: why them?  They say that Turkmen women are ugly but they are unproblematic.  I ask Turkmen women: why them?  They say that Turkish men make them feel what it is like to be a woman for the first time.

Akyüz’s statements sparked a real scandal with Sabah‘s investors among the Çalık Group, which had close ties with Niyazov via its owner and namesake Ahmet Çalık, eventually prompting his dismissal.  The dismissal may have ultimately originated from by Çalık himself as a way to curry favor with Berdimuhammadov, with whom he did not enjoy as close relations.  If so, it obviously didn’t help since the relationship between the two men has since considerably soured.

Meanwhile, other reporters have concentrated on the Turkmen women as pitiful “victims”.  The story goes: criminals lure Turkmen women with the promise of jobs as au pairs only to be tricked into prostitution rings.  Sometimes the women are actually forced by their lazy or drug-addicted husbands into prostitution in order to repatriate their ill-begotten earnings to Turkmenistan.

These accusations have not only fed into negative Turkish feelings, but they have also sparked angry debate inside Turkmenistan, as well.   Suddenly a society that has been known for its long-lasting traditions and customs finds itself unmasked and accused of moral decay.  Some Turkmens have called upon their president to speak up in defense of Turkmen national honor or to restore it by combating immorality among the people.

Put up or shut up

But this is something that I, as a woman, noticed: nowhere in all this — not among the yellow Turkish press or the inflamed Turkmen reaction — do we hear the voices of the Turkmen women themselves.  We don’t hear about their reasons for coming to Turkey, or their pain or their dignity.  We don’t hear what it’s like for them, who have grown up in a totalitarian dictatorship, to be suddenly confronted with the hustle and bustle of consumer capitalism in Turkey.

The silence is meaningful for two reasons.  First, because it questions a central political belief of many Islamic societies today: that the West “Orientalizes” Muslims into exotic, erotic, and irrational creatures who are incapable of governing themselves without a steady Western hand.  The story Muslims would prefer to believe is that only the West Orientalizes, but clearly Muslims can and will do it to each other, too.  Turkmen women are the exotic among the exotic.

Second, and more intimately, the silence is painfully ironic because it mirrors the situation women face back home in Turkmenistan, where they toil silently.  At home, they are mules; abroad, they are instruments of pleasure; but either way, they are treated as mutes.  Americans have a fitting expression for this — put up or shut up.  I wanted to hear my countrywomen, so I went out into Istanbul to find them.

Getting the job

In the busy Laleli district. a friend of mine took me to a café where a young Turkmen woman nervously looking at her watch was waiting for us.  I asked her why she had come to Istanbul, and her story turned out to be a typical one.  There are many different menial jobs in Turkey that my countrywomen perform.  They work as nannies, house cleaners, servants, factory workers, and harvesters in the fields.  The girl in the café had come to be a baby-sitter.

After a few minutes, the girl asked me,

“Will I get the job?”

When I explained that I was just curious to learn more about my countrywomen, she was at first puzzled, then suddenly excusing herself, recalling that she had to go see somebody.  She then stood up and left.

Another Turkmen woman I met was more comfortable talking about her experience.  She had been invited by a female relative working in Istanbul two years ago with the promise of a job.  She now makes $600 a month looking after an old woman, but had to leave behind her mother and four-year-old daughter in Ashgabat.  She regularly sends her earnings back home to them.  Why is she in Turkey?  Because,

“In Turkmenistan, it simply would be impossible for me to get a job.”

Many of them know that they will not be in Turkey forever; after saving enough money and paying their debts, they intend to return to their homeland. Occasionally some of them do manage to start a legal life or marry a Turkish citizen, but that seems to only feed into the Orientalism.  And so, this fascinating city’s face is changing fast, but for my countrywomen Istanbul is a metropolis of anonymity and quiet desperation.

Author’s note: about Orientalism and the exotic: around 1830,  Eugene Delacroix, a French Romantic painter went to North Africa in search of exotic beauties.  Here’s an example from his famous painting, The Women of Algiers.

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