I’ve heard from previous volunteers that Turkmen women get a kind of joy from vicariously living through us. We can get away with wearing pants (depending on the site) or short-sleeved koyniks or having uncovered heads. We are free of the burdens of a husband and children. Many women I’ve met are fascinated to learn that I’ve been to several countries and I can tell that they wish they could travel (some come right out and say it).
Many women don’t get it when I nonchalantly say I’m not married. They really don’t get it when I say I don’t care if I have children or not. I had a long discussion with a teacher at the school about it. She said I must have children, they are a gift from God. I told her I needed to find someone who would be a good father first, but even then I wouldn’t necessarily have kids. She said I need to have them soon or else I’ll be too old. I said I could always adopt. She was shocked by the idea and said, “but they wouldn’t look like you.” I was finally able to get her to accept the fact that I could be happy with or without kids, adopted or biological.
But I have to have the marriage conversation with almost every woman I spend more than half an hour with. In Turkmenistan it is unheard of for a woman my age to still be single. If you’re not married by 24 or 25, the parents start to worry and you’re married off within the next year or two. I didn’t have the nerve to ask Ejeș if she loved her husband, but I’m guessing the answer is no. She seemed pretty unhappy when talking about her home life. I have to explain again and again that in America, it’s okay for women not to be married. That I’m not married because I haven’t met the right person and that, no, I’m not interested in marrying a Turkmen. I’m really not interested in marrying a Turkmen. But I don’t say that last part because I don’t want to offend them by going off on a rant about how awful Turkmen men are and that I’d rather be bitten by a rabid dog than marry a Turkmen. And, yes, they are all the same. Sure some are better than others, but they’re still a product of their society and their society is harmful to women. Now, I know there are some schools of feminism that say Western feminists shouldn’t try to impose their views on Eastern women. But I’m obviously not an adherent to that school of thought.
One of my friends here is afraid he’s starting to sound like an imperialist when he rants about some of what goes on here. I admit I’ve struggled with the same thought. Who am I to say one culture is better than another? But I think you can objectively say certain aspects of one culture are better than those of another. So I don’t think imperialism is all bad. There are some positive effects of imperialism on developing countries, like advanced technology, medical care, and women being treated like human beings.
The other angering thing about the treatment of women here is how prevalent prostitution is. Most Turkmen men go to prostitutes and their wives know. Even younger, more modern women will say that if a wife isn’t satisfying her husband it’s okay for him to go to prostitutes. This particular conversation came up with my LCF while I was still in training and I was so relieved and encouraged by the fact that all the guys in my group argued adamantly that it is never okay for a husband to see a prostitute. Shannon, bless his heart, said if there’s a problem in a marriage, the couple needs to sit down and talk it over and work it out. Then he took me aside later and said, “you need to have some girl talk with Lale and talk some sense into her.”
So whenever I see a Turkmen man on the street and seethe with contempt for him, I must remind myself of every American man I know who would never dream of ordering his wife to bring him the phone that is ringing three feet away from him because he can’t be bothered to get up off the couch.