Talking Story


  1. burqaYou could wear pajamas grocery shopping and no one would know.
  2. Skip everything but eye make-up.
  3. Ponytail hair every day.
  4. No shaving, waxing, or nylons.
  5. No sunscreen.
  6. Big lunch? No problem.
  7. Ultimate crowd blend—you could hide in your car and check email instead of sitting with the other mothers at the soccer game. (Of course I saw your awesome goal/kick/pass/tackle, honey! I was sitting on the bench right there!)
  8. One black handbag.
  9. One pair of comfortable black shoes.
  10. Carrying a scythe, you could scare the crap out of people walking down a hospital corridor.


Big Note:

I understand that what I called a burka in this and previous posts is a religious garment, an outward reflection of an inner commitment to a particular standard of modesty and propriety. I respect that. I also understand that these garments are usually worn only in public where men not related to a woman might see her. However, as a non-Muslim woman from the USA, seeing so many women wearing hijab, niqab, and burqas in Turkey made me wonder what benefits I might get from wearing Islamic dress. For those interested, here’s a better description of what I saw.

Hijab: Covers a woman’s body leaving only face and hands visible. What I saw most often in Turkey, particularly among women walking alone. Long skirts or long pants with thigh-length coats and head scarves. The clothes were always dark blue, grey, black, or brown. Some of the under 30 crowd wore brightly patterned head scarves. Well, sorta. Lots of blues, golds, muted greens, and browns. Very few pinks, reds, yellows, or purples.

Niqab: A loose fitting garment that also covers part of the face leaving only eyes visible. Less common, but I usually saw women in niqab in pairs or threesomes. Black. The fabric weight varied with some floating more like silk or nylon and others looking heavy like wool.

Burqa: A loose fitting garment that also obscures the face with a mesh so even the eyes are not visible. Fairly rare, but burqa wearers tended to travel in packs with male escorts. Black, only black, and heavy weighted fabrics.

Private function dinner at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey.

Private function dinner at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey.

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.


Burkas and cell phones. Fo’ real.

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.

Basillica Cistern without tables.

Basillica Cistern without tables.

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.

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