Choices

North American teens often have more choices in life than they can reasonably handle–given their rather short exposure to being on the face of the earth. Most of the time, they can freely choose hair styles and color. Imagine my shock the day I discovered one blond niece with pink-tipped hair or the afternoon I realized the black hair of a  normally blond nephew was courtesy of the efforts of his younger brother. Then freedom of choice in body-jewelry and baggy or holey jeans must be tolerated or approved somehow. Choices in friends and daily habits come next. North American teens’ choices seem to be endless.

I often wonder what a North American teenager would do if he or she were transported by a time machine back to the days of the Ottoman Turks. Girls in particular would be scandalized by what they would experience.

From childhood, a Turkish girl would be kept at home. She would likely be denied an education. The women in the household would train the girl in the keeping of the home, in cooking to please her father and brothers, and in the performing the daily washing and prayer rituals expected of the followers of Islam. A Turkish girl would be allowed to go to two places–the hammam or the local bathhouse at specified times, and the mesjid or local mosque on some Fridays. Whenever she left her home or whenever any men or boys came into her home, she had to cover herself completely. By the time, the girl reached the age of twelve or so, she was considered marriageable and often had to cover her face as well.

So one day, a matronly visitor shows up at the girl’s home. The girl’s mother understands the significance of the visit and hustles her daughter off to change into her finest clothes. When the girl and the household’s most elaborate tea service are ready, the girl must enter the sitting room and, with downcast eyes, serve tea to the visitor. While the visitor sips her tea, she examines the girl from head to toe. When the visitor puts her cup back, the girl must quietly withdraw.

After the matronly visitor leaves, the girl and her mother wait to see if the visitor has chosen the girl as a bride for the visitor’s son. If the girl isn’t chosen, she and her mother wait for another such visitor. If the visitor does choose the girl, the girl’s mother checks into “the prospects of the potential groom.” When the criteria of both mothers have been met, the girl’s father and brothers make the arrangements for the wedding contract, dowry amount, ceremony, etc.

And the Turkish girl? She has NO choice (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey.) (Also see the August 30, 2013 posting of this blog.) It is my guess that every Turkish parent taught his or her daughter to meekly accept ‘her fate.’

Daughters of Turkish families in the Ottoman Empire were not the only ones without choices. The summer of 1915, all choices ended for the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey. But the selection process for every Turkish mother of a son continued with little interruption for decades.