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WOMEN TRAVELLERS

Is Turkey a difficult country for women travellers?

This is a valid question given that the country is both Muslim and partially Mediterranean in culture, two factors that have been known to cause problems for women elsewhere.

But the good news is that Turkey is not Iran or Egypt or Morocco. Nor yet is it the Italy of old where women unaccompanied by men always had a very hard time. 

What is interesting about Turkey is how different the experiences of different women are. I have spent more than 20 years of my life travelling here and although when I was younger I certainly had to put up with far too much street hassle I have never thought the problems here that bad. But every now and then I still come across a woman who reports having had a particularly tough time here, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why this should be.

The common advice to female travellers always focuses on what they wear but in my personal experience this doesn't always make as much difference as one might expect. Of course if you walk around in skimpy shorts and all-but-non-existent tops you are courting trouble here as you would be anywhere. But some of my worst experiences in terms of being groped and molested have actually been in the east when I was wearing many layers of excess clothing. 

The sad reality is that no matter what you wear you will still be identifiable as a "Western" women which is enough in the eyes of the misguided few to create trouble. 

I have only ever once been refused a room in a hotel because I was a woman (oddly, that was in Ankara). However, I have had to put up with annoying knocks on the door at midnight and the sort of overly-friendly attention that left me feeling anxious. Never open your door at night to someone you have not specifically invited to the room. These days most starred hotels have chains on their doors; some also have peepholes so you can see who's knocking. At the slightest sign of trouble complain to the management. 

If restaurants are thrown by the idea of lone diners, that is even more the case when that lone diner is a woman. Many restaurants, especially in the east, have "aile (family)" sections, often upstairs, where lone women should sit. If you choose to sit with the men you will usually be treated as an honorary man, but if you use the aile section and anyone bothers you you will have every right to complain.

So what can you do to ensure your visit goes smoothly?

I would certainly advice dressing modestly so as to attract the least attention. Almost no one expects non-Muslims to wear a headscarf. Just covering your shoulders, knees and chest should be enough. 

It's advisable not to be too immediately friendly with people offering services. Western women are usually brought up that it's rude not to smile and be friendly to waiters, taxi drivers etc. Here, however, such behaviour can be misinterpreted. Keep a respectable difference until you know someone well. Don't sit in the front of a cab. Don't stay chatting to the waiter long after everyone else has left. Resist the temptation to smile at strange men in the street.

When travelling around the country take basic safety precautions. Don't wander off into remote countryside alone (and this includes walking in the remoter Cappadocian valleys). Don't hitchhike alone. However friendly people may seem, hang on to some of your Western reserve, and don't take up offers of hospitality unless you are sure that other family members will be around.

The difficulty lies in finding a way to balance the need to protect yourself against the pleasure of going with the flow and getting to know a country that is famous for its hospitality. 

What else can I say?

Keep listening to what your gut is saying probably.

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