Girls On Top: Women and Authority in Turkey

After a horrific couple of weeks coming and going from the local police station to get mine and my partner’s residence permits extended, I have come to two conclusions: women in positions of authority in Turkey are extra hard asses and, if you are a woman (perhaps especially a foreign one), the way to appeal to those in authority is adopting a helpless “I don’t know anything, you know everything” attitude. If you’re dealing with a man, act like a damsel in distress. If you’re dealing with a woman, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a compliment. This country is rife with gender clichés.

At my local police station, the person is charge of the Foreigner’s Bureau is a woman no older than me. When she called me in for my appointment, and proceeded to glare and shout at me as she flicked through my documents with exasperated precision (with her two male colleagues looking on in awe), her story unfolded in front of my eyes. She grew up playing cops and robbers and wanted to help society by enlisting in civil service. Her father had other ideas: she was to marry, have a family, and be a good housewife. But she rebelled, got an education, got a job, and found herself at or even under 30 in charge of the Foreigner’s Bureau. And the result? She is hardworking, but uncompromising and icy. The police force is a boys’ club and to get respect, well, she acts like Scarface.

The day it was my partner’s appointment, we approached the office to hear her shouting at a male colleague in her usual exasperated tone. She saw us and glared; we retreated back to the waiting lounge. The ensuing appointment was a series of highs and lows; she scrupulously scrutinized every line on his documents, shouting questions, rolling her eyes when we bumbled in broken Turkish. We needed other documents and were asked to return the following day, which we did. When we got there, she wasn’t yet on duty so we sat and waited. Shortly after, she walked in wearing casual clothes and when she caught my eye, she smiled. I smiled back and instantly felt positive: today’s proceedings will go smoothly. When we were called into the office, I walked in, smiling. But in her uniform and with her two male colleagues looking on, she was in a different mood. She glared at us. We were back in the boys’ club.

Now, please take my story with a grain of salt—I am speculating on the policewoman’s background here. But my speculations have an informed basis: my hypothesis of her upbringing is the fate of many, many women in this country. Unfortunately, countless women don’t get to decide their future: it is decided for them, usually by their fathers. And, what’s the best way to deal with her and others in authority? To let them act as they do. In Australia, I would never allow anyone to yell at me, roll their eyes at me if I was having trouble understanding something, throw my documents back at me. But (from previous experience), I have adopted a different attitude here in Turkey: do what those in authority say, pander to them, don’t react. It’s not easy for me, but it works. It’s what is expected of women here: to do what they’re told, to be submissive. In a way I feel for the policewoman: these expectations mean she has to work especially hard to prove she’s the boss.

Title image source: Amir Abdel Shafy, Flick.

Amir Abdel Shafy

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