There are many magical things about Istanbul and I was hooked before the end of my first week here. But that isn’t to say that things have been perfect: I learnt, very early on, the ways in which looking foreign in Istanbul might cause one grief.
My first three days in Istanbul were marked by molest for each day, with every count of misdemeanor disappointedly noted by my increasingly outraged butt.
The taxi driver sits me in the front seat, invites me to remove my bag from my lap for “greater comfort”, proceeds to hold my thigh in a parody of mirth. He also tries to expand my fledging vocabulary to include body parts, with a hand that strays and stays.
The perennially crowded tramway means many can come too close to comfort, but it doesn’t have to mean that your body becomes a makeshift railing for others to hold.
Two counts of harassment, near the Spice Bazaar, happened in such quick succession that I was still annoyed with earlier disgust when I spun around to give the perpetrator’s lagging friend a thump on the back. It was a line of youths making their way through the touristy district, hopefully not on their way to becoming disrespectful adults.
With that early education in street harassment, I was introduced to the side of Istanbul that many, Istanbullus and yabancılar alike, abhor.
Besides physical harassment, there are other forms of interaction that can aggrieve and aggravate: watching eyes that stare, catcalls and other invitations, men that consciously swerve into you when walking by.
This article will describe why such things might happen in Istanbul, and what one can do about it. Harassment is in no way unique to Turkey, but to understand why it might happen in Istanbul, I’ve asked a few friends for their opinion.
1. Turkey is more patriarchal than not. This can see ideas like “women are submissive”, “women’s personal space can be intruded upon by men”, and “women’s desires for respect are unimportant” going unchallenged. Those under the delusion that “it’s a man’s world” tend to behave rudely to any woman “outside of her place”, which they would assert, is at home in the kitchen. In greater depth, a 1995 study traces the curtailment of female freedom to “the Mediterranean culture with its honor and shame codes, the Islamic tradition with its divine judgement on female behavior and the Kemalist ideology with its stereotype of an asexual, self-sacrificing Turkish woman.”
2. Foreigners are perceived as more sexually open and available. The friendly smile of a polite foreigner may be liberally interpreted as a seductive suggestion.
3. Foreigners, generally unable to speak the language, are also unable to confront the perpetrator, an assumption which casual opportunists bank on.
4. Specifically, Asian-looking foreigners can be perceived as “docile, subservient and, weak”.
That said, harassment by men is an issue for everyone and plagues the young, the old, hijabi or without, foreign-looking, or clearly local.
When unwanted interactions occur, advice from Hollaback! Istanbul recommends that one respond in the moment as long as it is safe enough to do so. Very often, we feel angry at ourselves for remaining silent, whether from shock or intimidation; another reason to speak up firmly is to deter the harasser from perpetrating unacceptable behavior.
Hollaback!, a community dedicated against harassment, has many relevant resources, one of which being a YouTube video teaching some Turkish words you can use.
- İmdat (“Help!”),
- Beni elledi (“He touched me,”),
- Çekil (“Get away from me”, pronounced as chekil),
- and Ayıp (“Shame!”, a strong indictment in Turkish, pronounced as ayeup).
Longer and more colloquial phrases taught to me by friends include;
- Senin hiç kız kardeşin yok mu?? (“Don’t you have any sisters?”),
- Neden beni taciz ediyorsun? (“Why do you molest me?”, which can be said to alert bystanders),
- and Polisi arayacağım (“I’m going to call the cops”). If you feel safe enough to express your anger, you can say Seni pislik (“You are a jerk”).
However, common advice recommends that you confront without insults or personal attacks —even when they are warranted— because it may provoke the harasser to violence, or turn confused bystanders against you.
To decrease the incidence of harassment, here are several strategies that may be helpful.
> On public transport, stand near older Turkish women. They are community heroes and will be vocal on your behalf. Stand with your back to walls, assume body language that communicates confidence. Leave the dolmuş or the mini-bus, if it feels uncomfortable to be the only female, or only remaining passenger.
> Be extra-alert in touristy districts like Eminönü. Be alert everywhere else.
> Covering up with thicker, longer clothing, may make you feel more secure against leering stares. However, harassers will harass regardless of attire, and sometimes, regardless of who you are walking with on the streets.
With this said, we should all remember that the responsability of avoiding harassment is not just the women's job.
Finally, to conclude, there is another form of unwanted interaction found on the streets, of propositions under a veneer of politeness. When one is alone, one may find oneself the target of conversations with men that begin with “Merhaba”, or recently, “Don’t you speak to Turkish people?”, and end with “Are you hungry? Do you want tea? Shall we have dinner and special wine at my place?” Do not feel awkward about expressing displeasure at “innocent” touches, and do not feel obliged to answer personal questions.
I still love this chaotic city very much, along with its food, its spirit, and most of its people. Don’t let individual reprobates and possibly systemic harassment stop you from exploring the city!