While walking along the streets of Southeast Turkey, Jorge and I encountered men everywhere. They were our waiters, our hotel clerks and our taxi drivers. They were the denizens of the teahouses, bakeries and kebab shops we frequented. They were the ones who we negotiated with when buying carpets and ceramics.
If we were lost, for even a moment, a man would appear out of nowhere to guide us graciously to our destination. And even if we were not lost, we were constantly chased down by grinning men eager to share with us the one English phrase everyone in Turkey knows (“Hello! Where are you from?”) and then invite us for tea at their shops or houses.
Women, on the other hand, were noticeably more discreet. We rarely saw women and, when we did, they were heavily cloaked and dared not look our way. When I had my camera out, men would gesture to me from afar to indicate they wanted their pictures taken. Women who saw my camera would hold up their hands to conceal their faces.
It was not until we had the opportunity to visit Kurdish families in their homes, which we arranged through a local company called Nomad Tours, that we interacted with women for the first time. To see women in their homes was to see women in the sphere in which they reign. I was stunned to find confident, outspoken women who looked me in the eye and answered for their husbands and brothers.
The first home we visited was in a rural Kurdish village of about twenty families near Sanliurfa. There, we stayed in the home of Ali and Ayten and their five children. Ali and Ayten were both extremely welcoming to us. But whereas Ali generally hung back, smiling sweetly and saying nothing except to tell the occasional joke, Ayten made it clear that she was in charge.
Upon our arrival at the house, we found Ayten crouched on a stool with her purple headscarf milking sheep, while her children stood by ready to follow her orders. Ayten then proudly showed us her garden, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, pomegranates and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. She told us about the intricacies of bee-keeping and carpet-making, for which she is regarded as an expert by her community. In fact, Ayten is revered by women in her own village and the neighboring villages for her leadership and competence.
Over our meals, which we ate while seated cross-legged on carpets, Ayten was the first to speak. She told us about the food (for dinner, bulgur she had dried and ground herself and, for breakfast, cheese, yogurt and bread she had prepared from scratch that day) and about the family’s routine. When we timidly asked about topics that might be sensitive, such as arranged marriages and education for women, Ayten did not hesitate to answer our questions directly. She even boldly tested out her English on us (“Welcome! This is the bathroom”).
The following day, we met a few more women Kurdish women while visiting a camp where nomads live. We found the camp by driving along a main highway near Siverek and stopping when we saw tents on the side of the road. Two young women, both strikingly beautiful with large eyes and dazzling smiles, greeted us warmly. They did not seem in the least perturbed or scared by the fact that we had shown up uninvited. They were trailed by several chubby, curly-haired toddlers.
The women invited us into one of their tents and laughed merrily as they told us about their lives. They had come to this region with their families only for the winter to graze their animals. The rest of the year they live in Erzurum, a city in northeastern Turkey with a much harsher winter climate. We were shocked to learn their ages—only 12 and 15! They exhibited the poise and maturity of women at least twice their age.
When we peppered them with questions about marriage and education, they did not bat an eye. They had both dropped out of school (presumably due to responsibilities at home), which they now regretted. They were in no rush to get married and would choose to marry whomever they liked once they were older. For now, they cooked and cleaned and cared for the children of their older siblings.
By meeting Kurdish women in their homes, I discovered that the women of Southeast Turkey are not universally submissive or shy. The women we met, in fact, were as self-assured as the men who regularly ran up to us on the street. However, in a society in which men and women occupy distinct social and physical spheres, what you see on the street is only half the story.