Sunday evening, May 4, 2014, Istanbul, Turkey.
There are 800 of us in semi-formal western attire walking through the plaza past the Hagia Sophia to the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) where we’ll have a dinner so fancy that at 2 am my husband will order pizza from room service.
The walk is long, over uneven cobblestones and up and down slick marble steps. Most of my attention is on avoiding holes and cracks, teetering along in my sparkly spiked heels. My swollen and healing foot isn’t quite up to the stress, but every women knows beauty is pain. I keep a tight grip on my husband’s arm.
I’m not the only woman walking gingerly, so we’re strung out in a line that runs about a third of a mile long. What little attention I can spare is spent bedazzled by the soaring minarets and domes of the buildings we pass by. It’s everything I’ve seen in history books and more. Carts selling roasted chestnuts, watermelon, corn on the cob, and something I suspect is tea are strategically placed along the way, as are benches under shady trees.
And that’s when I see them.
It’s Sunday evening after all, and local families have been enjoying the day in the Old Town, the part of Istanbul that was once Constantinople and before that, Byzantium. Ancient doesn’t begin to describe it. Over loud speakers we hear an Imam wailing praise and glory to Allah, calling the faithful to remember and give thanks.
Perched on benches, gathered in front of spurting fountains, and lining both sides of the walkway are women in burkas. I can only see their eyes, but I can feel their disapproval. They clutch children close and whisper in their ears. I resist the urge to tug down on my hem. In a fitted black cocktail dress that comes to my knees, covers my shoulders, and barely shows my collarbones, I feel like I’m wearing a bikini.
Ahead of me people in my group are taking pictures with cell phones and surreptitiously point with their chins at men in fezzes offering to shine shoes, beggars leaning against walls, gypsy children chasing around a tree. At the same time I see cell phones peeking out of burka sleeves, snapping photos of us, the freak show on parade. Some of the young men walk up and boldly take pictures of long legs and short hems, crowing to their buddies as they gather to review their spoils.
I catch their eyes and give them my best motherly you-should-be-ashamed-of-yourself look. They back off. It’s only later that I learn that making direct eye contact with a male stranger is more scandalous than cleavage.
I take note of the few burka-less women I see: dark colors, closed-toed shoes, long pants or skirts to the ankle, long sleeves, thigh-length coats, head scarves. I think of what I packed: bright colors, capris, sandals, short-sleeves. There’s no way I’m not going to stick out like a naked sore thumb. Even my rain jacket is bright raspberry.
I’m not used to this. By most American standards, I dress on the dowdy side of frumpy. I’m pudgy in all the wrong places. Baggy and shapeless are my friends. The idea that anyone besides my husband could find me titillating is ludicrous, but waves of disapproval are crashing all around me. I begin to question my own standards of modesty and wonder if it’s all in our heads.
Maybe modesty is really more about what people think and assume rather than how much skin is showing.