One of the “grooms of the year” was 42-year-old Necati Şaşmaz, or by his much more well-known name, Polat Alemdar, the leading character of popular Turkish crime drama with a very nationalistic tone “Valley of the Wolves” (Kurtlar Vadisi).
He tied the knot in December with a modest 20-year-old college student with the approval of his family, a relationship that nobody had heard of, unlike Şaşmaz’s previous relationships. What led to more coverage was the fact that this sudden marriage took place only shortly after his most recent and public relationship with an actress ended. This example, among many others, once again reflected the famous unwritten rule, if not the hypocrisy, in Turkish society: the distinction between girls to have fun with versus girls to marry.
Although men from all walks of life in Turkish society suffer from this dichotomy because Turkey still has a very traditional and very patriarchal society, men from conservative backgrounds are more under the spotlight. After all, the conservatives, as the largest class of the country, have become increasingly visible in a changing Turkey. One of the ways they cope with modernism is relationships. In a way, the conservatives of Turkey -- particularly men -- are tested by the way they relate to women. They seem to suffer from a contradiction posed by the modern and Western lifestyle and the choices they are supposed to make according to their traditional culture. As a result, at some point, most of them revert to their family’s choice when it comes to choosing a partner with which to start a family after experiencing and enjoying all the available options.
Talking to Sunday’s Zaman, a 30-year-old İstanbul-based private business executive who married an “appropriate” girl in accordance with his conservative family background and upbringing last year admits that he made such a distinction: choosing a girl to marry versus a girl to have fun with. Emphasizing that he was always open and honest with the “other girls” whom he dated, he said that he could have ended up with one of his previous girlfriends as well, had she been more acquiescing concerning the conditions he listed if she was to marry him. “I told her that if we were to marry, alcoholic beverages would not be acceptable in our house, and she laughed at me in disbelief,” he says, while admitting that it was controversial on his part to flirt with her in places like nightclubs because the girl he chose to marry has never been to such a place. “My friends were equally surprised [as in the case of Necati Şaşmaz] when I married a girl who wears a headscarf after having relationships with completely different girls,” he adds.
According to a communications specialist who is familiar with the lifestyle of conservative men, this hypocrisy derives from the patriarchal culture in Turkey. However, he argues that “sexuality lies at the heart of the problem because its comparative absence leads to hidden deprivations and aspirations.” On the other hand, he argues that “there is still very strong social control and the so-called ‘neighborhood pressure’ which block those aspirations and dismiss those deprivations,” which ultimately leads to a contradictory lifestyle on their part.
Based on her own experience of relationships with conservative men, a young professional woman offers a similar account. According to her, due to “a state of insatiability” these men run from one relationship to other while “refraining from making their relationships public in order to avoid any commitment because their upbringing makes them think they have to marry the girl if their relationship is out in the open.” On the other hand she argues, “They do not feel any responsibility towards some girls they flirt with as in the Şaşmaz example, which is both immoral and inconsistent.”
Family counselor Efkan Yeşildağ admits that conservative Turkish men categorically divide women as girls to have fun with versus girls to marry while underlining an important point. According to him, the terms conservative and religious are often mixed and used interchangeably in Turkey, which is a mistake. He argues that this categorical distinction of women is often made by conservatives as they act more according to tradition rather than principles and rules.
Yeşildağ believes that conservative men have a certain model of their ideal woman to marry in their minds, which is a figure similar to their mothers, and act accordingly. However, unlike the general belief, religious men do not categorize women as conservative men do but rather approach the issue of marriage according to rights and responsibilities – thus, with more concern about women in a relationship, he argues.
In accordance with the above observation, the communications specialist believes that this young late-modern pseudo-conservative man” as he calls him, is “not necessarily religious in his private life, but perfectly ‘proper’ in the public space.” He further claims that “the flirtation and relationships with girls is the reflection of the ‘hidden’ libertine self, whereas marriage with a much younger girl is the manifestation of political correctness.”
“Men, in general, already focus on results in a relationship unlike women, who care more about the process,” Yeşildağ argues, despite the overall belief that it is women who are result-oriented when it comes to marriage. For Yeşildağ, a conservative man as a result “looks at the past of the woman he considers marrying and wonders whether she has been with someone else or not by evaluating her attitude in her relationship with him.” However, the very men who are sensitive about the past relationships of a woman could be promiscuous in their own lives. According to Yeşildağ, “While men look for women similar to their mothers to marry as an ideal model, in order to experience a smorgasbord of life, they engage in relationships with different women.”
In an approving note, the young İstanbulite businessman says that “say it was curiosity or being young, I experienced a lifestyle that was inappropriate with my belief system, but I always wanted to pursue a lifestyle that is more in accordance with my family’s pious lifestyle.” Yeşildağ defines this conflicting approach a paradox, namely conservative men’s immoral behavior yet they desire to end up with someone with high morals in traditional terms.
In a very typical example Yeşildağ provides, a young conservative man breaks up with his girlfriend because she visited him in his apartment where he lives by himself. “Does a girl who goes to a single man’s apartment expect me to marry her?” asks the man in astonishment as he “suspects” that she might have visited other men in their apartments. Not only the hypocrisy, but also the double standard of a seemingly religious but in fact conservative-patriarchal society can be traced through this example.
Indeed, it would be unfair to limit such hypocrisy to conservatives only because it is embedded in the genetic codes of Turkish society. It only seems like more of a contrast when it comes to people who pursue a different lifestyle than their own beliefs. On a confirmatory note, Yeşildağ lists hypocrisy as “one of the biggest problems of our society” and says that it leads to “inconsistency in life where individuals have a dilemma between the person they are and the person they want to be.” Emphasizing that his analysis “should not be taken as an insult, but as a diagnosis,” Yeşildağ adds that “we actually hold Eastern values in a society governed by Western rules.”
Another dilemma in the relationships that are tested by traditional values is trust. As Yeşildağ says, “When a woman gets closer to a man because she trusts him, conversely a conservative man begins to have second thoughts about her,” since “women who do not obey traditional expectations and rules do not generate trust in some men.” In the end, women are hurt more and it takes more time for them to recover, but interestingly, Yeşildağ argues that “in the long run men suffer more deeply because men have a hard time closing the wounds of the past, while women mourn and move on.”
On the other hand, pious men, according to Yeşildağ, are less prone to the negative impacts of traditions, unlike the common belief. “Due to their beliefs that they will be accountable to God for their actions, they are more concerned about the rights of women,” compared to conservative men, says Yeşildağ, based on his professional observations.
The dilemma of country’s conservative men displays that Turkey is not only located between West and East geographically, but also culturally. Turkish society’s dilemmas, particularly in relation to the perception of women, are likely to dominate the everyday life of the people as the country copes with modernization. However, the above examples signal that the label “conservative” should be used with caution in order not to put a wide range of lifestyles and choices in the same category.