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Waxing feminine in Turkey

Tuesday December 5, 2006

Erica Kaya

Part one

?You?d like condoms and birth control pills?? the woman from the World Health Organisation asked, putting down her tea glass and retrieving the pills from her bag. She had been going door to door in our Istanbul neighbourhood lecturing women about family planning. No news to me, I?d learned human reproductive issues in high school health classes in Knoxville, Tennessee. Still, home-delivered contraception seemed quite progressive for Turkey, and if it meant avoiding a doctor?s visit, all the better. So that April morning, my sister-in-law and I had invited her in for tea. And prophylactics.

Newly wedded to Bar??, I?d arrived in Turkey eight months earlier in autumn 2003. My Turkish was fluent enough to follow the conversation, though my sister-in-law, Lale, sometimes acted as my translator. More importantly, she had recently become my social compass, helping me navigate the complex mores of Turkish women. The language was not as difficult to master as the paradoxes of local feminine culture, which often confused me. That day was no exception.

We had obediently filled out her survey while the WHO woman, in her mid-fifties, lectured us twenty-somethings on abstinence and contraception. As I handed back our forms I asked whether she?d be giving Lale any freebies. She checked the personal details on Lale?s form. ?She?s not married. Why should she need birth control??

What flawed logic was this? I thought.

Lale quickly confirmed that she didn?t need anything and showed our visitor out. Then turning to me, Lale hissed ?Erica, that was so humiliating! I thought she was just handing them out!?

I was indignant. ?What?s the purpose of teaching population control if she?s not going to help control it??

?How the hell should I know?? Lale said, clearing the small tea glasses from the table.

?You have much more reason to be careful! I wonder if this is WHO policy or if they have different rules for Turkey.?

?You know Turkish girls have to pretend to be virgins until they?re married,? my sister-in-law said, angrily. Lale wasn?t promiscuous by American standards, but then we weren?t in America. She?d been intimate with a past boyfriend once years ago, scandalous if anyone else in the family besides me found out.

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