The Hijabi Hairdresser and (the few) Gender-Segregated Turkish Spaces

The second time I came to Turkey, I was dragged to an upscale hair salon in Izmir with my former employer only to discover that all the hairdressers were men. I was amazed. It was different from Canada, to be sure, where hairdressers are typically women or gay men. However, it wasn’t just that. Although Izmir is the most liberal city in Turkey and women in Izmir don’t tend to wear any kind of covering, it’s still Turkey. In other words, men in Izmir still tend to behave possessively towards wives, sisters, and girlfriends, and virginity before marriage is still valued. Because of all this, the idea that men should bear the responsibility of touching women in order to make them more beautiful seemed . . . bizarre.

I’ll get back to this later.

Source: omarkuafor.com

Source: omarkuafor.com

I suppose it is bad to steal pictures without asking, but had to use it. Sadly, I have never gotten three things done at once or been fed Turkish coffee at a Turkish salon.

When I finally moved to Istanbul, I starting making periodical appearances at my neighbourhood hamam. The first time I went, it wasn’t busy. When I entered, the women who worked there were sprawled across benches watching an Indian soap opera on a 12 inch television. When I came out of the steam bath, one of them put some music on and they started to belly dance. I joined in briefly, to hoots of kind laughter and motherly correction that had no effect on my technique.

The second time I went it was busier. Women roamed around in varying states of undress: one had a nipple straying out of her bra; another was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of panties two sizes too small. Another was clothed, sprawled out on one of the benches, napping. All seemed comfortable. It was like I’d walked into an Orientalist painting . . . except imagine each woman aged about 50 years and about 10 kilos heavier, plop some of them in chairs getting their roots bleached old-lady blonde, and imagine them all clucking simultaneously when you walk the wrong way or forget your slippers.

Like this Gérome painting....but not.

Like this Gérome painting….but really not.

That day I was there not because I wanted to get scrubbed, but because they provided waxing services. I asked if they were free to wax me and was met with a raucous course of yes. A moment later I was hustled into a small room and told to remove my clothing below the waist – even though the door to the room was open. The woman who waxed me was in her sixties and insisted that I stand while she did it, presumably to save her back. Understanding that my Turkish needs improving, she was careful to speak slowly and loudly to me as she spelled out the ingredients of the wax. “Sekeeeeeeer, li-mooooooon, su – her sey dog-aaaaaal.” (Sugar, lemon, it’s all-natural.) I stood their naked from the waist down as she ripped my body hair into submission when all of a sudden another woman of roughly the same generation as my waxer hung her head and both breasts into the room to ask about something, before continuing contentedly on her bucknaked way as I did my best not to collapse in a fit of giggles at her nudist nonchalance.

I adore the atmosphere of the hamam. Not one woman in there appears to care what her body looks like or to have any kind of running competition with anybody else. Most of them are over 50, and many older; when you go into the actual steam bath part of the hamam (rather than the outer courtyard), most of the woman are unselfconsciously naked, lifting flaps of skin and breast to scrub underneath, enjoying a massage or full-body exfoliation, and chatting with whoever they’ve come with. I heard from friends that they even sometimes make food and just go and eat it there if there are no husbands or children or grandchildren that need tending. At any rate, it’s convivial and relaxed and relaxing and a little bit funny to get mothered this way and that for a few hours while wearing very little.

Hamams are, of course, segregated by gender. Women and men bathe at different times or in different sections, depending on the size and architecture of the place. My hamam excursions made me wonder whether other gender-segregated spaces existed in Turkish society.

Most things in Turkey are not segregated by gender, and although patriarchal attitudes are alive and well, the legacy of the Ataturkian reforms reigns superficial king in public places.* There is still some segregation, however. Now that I live in Istanbul, I am surrounded by many more women who choose to cover themselves to varying degrees. In Montreal hijabis are a common sight, so the proliferation of hijab-clad women did not give me pause at first – until I noticed that every hair salon I passed by still seemed to be staffed by men like the ones in Izmir were. So I put the question to Adem. “Where do women who cover get their haircut?” I asked. “I think just at a regular salon,” he said. “Many women veil just for political reasons, but aren’t necessarily religious. They probably just take their hijab off when they get into the salon.

“What?” I said. “Women are just veiling for political reasons? That can’t be right.”

“No really,” Adem said. “Before the ruling party came into power almost nobody veiled. And then as soon as they came into power people started to do it because the government was religious – or at least, claimed to be. So there are lots of reasons to cover your hair besides religion. People need to seem sufficiently religious to work in any occupation that has anything to do with the ruling party, so women will veil in order to get better jobs or make their husbands more competitive on the job market. It’s also a fashion statement. And some women decide to veil after they decide to make a change in their life in order to indicate that they’ve turned over a new leaf. And of course many of the women you see wearing abayas and niqabs are not Turkish at all – they’re Syrian. Anyway, I think they must just get their hair cut at a regular hairdresser. If they weren’t veiled before they can probably still make an exception for a few hours.”

I was not convinced that this could possibly be true. While it’s true that the current ruling party identifies itself as religious and makes statements about women that belong in the dark ages (e.g. birth control is unbecoming to Muslim women, it is not modest for women to smile), it did not seem possible that all women who chose to cover were doing so out of societal pressure. Assuming that some were motivated by sincere desire to observe their faith, it made sense that there should be facilities where they could get their hair done outside of the prying eyes of men. I also know that many hijabis enjoy looking good as much as their uncovered counterparts; I once bought a pair of yoga pants in a store stuffed with cheap pornographic lingerie. As I turned to examine my rear (the whole point of yoga pants – hello), the saleslady, a hijabi around my age, flashed me a thumbs up and said, “Looks great.” And that’s not even to mention the fact that many covered women seem to make up for any attractiveness they may have lost by covering their hair by making themselves up like movie stars and posting duck-faced selfies on Instagram.

So I was on the hunt for a hijabi hairdresser. Adem wasn’t much help, so I put the appeal out on Facebook. The first comment was a bit reactionary. “Turkey is not a segregated country.” it said. “It’s not the Gulf. Most hijabis are just happy to have a man cut their hair.”

Interesting.

Subsequent comments disagreed as helpful hijabis came out of the cyberworks. “They exist,” they said. “The windows are blocked out so people can’t see in, which is why they aren’t as obvious. And they tend to be in neighbourhoods, not downtown, although there are some downtown too that cater to tourist women from the Gulf. Look for a place that says “tesettur bolumu” on the sign.

As it turned out, the answer to my question had been staring me straight in the face. Across the street from my apartment stood another apartment building with a sign that said “tesettur bolumu.” One morning, I went there, ostensibly to get a pedicure. The salon wasn’t located on the ground floor like most others I’d seen, and I had to knock on a heavy wooden door to get in. A woman peeked around the door. “Welcome,” she said, and that’s about it. I asked if they offered pedicures, and she waved me to a seat off to the side before motioning to a young esthetician who dutifully placed a tub of hot water beneath my feet, then returned to curling her hair while waiting for my feet to soften.

In truth, I’d been expecting something like the hamam – convivial, cheerful, a clothed but uncovered place where women might let loose a little bit. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The pedicure was conducted in absurd silence. Not only did the staff not talk to me, which I might have understood as they may have assumed that my knowledge of Turkish was too limited; they didn’t talk to each other. And when a hijabi did come in she kept her carefully arranged hijab on, turning 180 degrees in front of the mirror and checking her profile and makeup before seating herself on the couch to gossip quietly and nastily with the staff at the salon about mutual friends and acquaintances. At the end of my pedicure I paid and went out, probably never to return.

On my way home, I passed by a third gender segregated space, this time for men. This is the kahve, a café where men shoot the shit, smoke nargile, drink tea, and play board games. I can’t write much more about it since I’m not allowed inside; from outside it seems fairly lively, though more subdued than the hamam.

IMG_3656

On the right, a kahve spilling out into the street.

I hear worries from friends and family all the time about the possibility of Turkey becoming more like a Gulf country, a place where gender segregation is the norm rather than the exception, or where women are judged (more than they already are – and they are) by what they choose to wear. The current political establishment appears to be driving Turkey in this direction, though many Turkish people resist this pressure; some even refuse to associate those who would agree with the current government’s ideology and policies. When I told friends I was writing about this, many reacted by expressing these worries. It is a sobering counterpoint to my merry curiosity, and an important one. In ten years, how will Turkey’s spaces have changed with regard to gender?

*Ataturk was, among other things, responsible for the adoption of Western dress (thereby abolishing the veil and fez), and giving women the right to vote.

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