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Walls Are Not Tumbling
He said “When you pay too much attention to your looks, you give a message.” I said “What message?” He didn’t clarify. I said nothing for the next few minutes, kept looking at him in jaded disbelief and asked: “Why do you think a woman wears a miniskirt?” He said he didn’t know.
For a moment, I didn’t know either. Sobs and slight convulsions up to that point during the session had fired a headache I suffer only during times like these, my eyes were so swollen that they shrank into a squint. I said “These are my legs. These are my legs.” The man in front of me was my therapist.
The night before, I was walking up Tarlabaşı Boulevard after midnight in heels, transparent stockings and miniskirt- oh please let me justify first, this was my business attire and Sunday happened to be a workday- crying and talking to my friend on the phone. The boulevard was alive, brightly lit by lamps and headlights of cars and busses, but the sidewalk was narrow, narrower with my hurried but exhausted steps. Before I could reach Taksim Square, I received leers and intrusive remarks from a handful of creeps, one of them following me closely until I threw myself into the boulevard as I quickly thought that drivers would show more kindness than this hideous man to a woman trying to walk, talk and keep herself collected after midnight in the second most populated city of the world.
I wear miniskirts to work, to clubs with friends, to a casual day in the library by myself. I grew up having to cover all my body; I am only recently coming to terms with accepting, appreciating and most importantly loving my body the way it is. It has been a slow and painfully guilt-ridden process. It means loving your limbs without letting anyone, any rotten ideology or system deciding on how to cover them properly because they will cause men to have sex with you.
My therapist suggested that I didn’t pay this time for he had broken my heart. I refused and walked out. He has done so much in the better part of thirty six years of his life, dedicated so much thought and energy into winnowing out all sexism in his makeup that I simply could not not forgive him for making a confused and uncomely remark. He has been my biggest support in my rebirth as a fully independent human being and proved how doable it is to show effort and rid oneself of the backward patriarchal bigotry hardwired in both men and women. Of all ages and ethnicities.
A dear friend of mine, born and raised sexist in Australia where his masculinity would be cruelly suspected by male peers if he didn’t sleep with a new woman every week, told me that he had been on an internal journey of enlightenment for the past six months and that he had been questioning and restructuring his definition of manhood through a complete turnaround in his approach towards women. He told me, his eyes glowing like a curious child, that he had found out about how complex and beautiful women are and that having profound talks with them with no intention of sexual advancement was a most precious thing. A few days ago, he made a thoughtless joke on prostitution and consensual one-time sex between strangers. He had no idea about what it could mean to a woman and felt deeply ashamed when he found out.
In my experience, every human being is sexist until proven otherwise. Thousands of years of patriarchal tar runs through all of us, men and women alike, and it requires a conscientious and constant effort of unlearning to eliminate. It took me a good deal of fifteen years to realize that there was something wrong with having to cover my entire body, another two years to make peace with a new self, and countless everyday experiences that forced me to rethink and question the web of patriarchy interlocking many cultures. Most often, men do not have as numerous visceral experiences that lead them into an epiphany on the status quo. And mostly, women suffer more from patriarchy than men do. When I told my friend that if you equate sex with prostitution in any linguistic register it will only serve as an underhand perpetuation of degrading a woman’s sexuality, no matter the receiver of the joke, he was deeply sorry and he accepted that “jokes” have been the blind spot in his unlearning efforts. My therapist has been working intensely on gender roles since he was an adolescent and part of the reason why he chose his profession is rooted in his staunchly patriarchal background. Ever since, he has been striving to understand himself, his sister, his girlfriends and now his daughter and to correct his behavioral patterns. He says to me, with unease and in a markedly apologetic tone, that sometimes, despite all efforts, a sexist monster from deep below pokes his head out in unwarranted ways and says something he fails to account for in a fleeting moment. At first, I thought all the walls were tumbling. My therapist and my friend, my brightest beacons of hope had also failed. But when I thought it over, I realized that it takes a while for both sexes to acknowledge the wrongness of behaviors or words on the wide spectrum of sexism. And after so much sincere effort, when we sometimes fail, a quick shake-off will be enough.
It’s noon on a sunny spring day on Istiklal Caddesi. I’m walking quickly down the street, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible with my headphones in and eyes straight ahead. I notice a grinning young guy a few meters ahead motioning and saying something. Rolling my eyes and mentally ticking a box next to ‘creep’, I think of how much I hate this street and keep walking. The man keeps talking and begins walking alongside me gesturing towards the side of the street, but I ignore him and keep walking, stoic-faced and fast-paced. After a few seconds the man grabs my arm and begins pulling me to the side. Shocked by his brazen action on such a crowded street in the middle of the day, I rip my headphones out and prepare myself to throw down, thinking about how much I’ve had it up to here – HERE – with these men and their creepy antics. I’m just crafting a strange sentence in broken Turkish about shame and killing and his hairdo when I realize there’s a tinny ringing sound close behind. The guy’s face crumples in confusion as he points behind me. Sure enough, that illustrious symbol of Istanbul, the Nostalgic Tram, is hovering impatiently, complete with an “Ooof yaa!”-ing driver grumbling about yabancilar (foreigners) as I stand in the middle of the tracks completely unaware. I had been walking on the tram tracks all along and the poor guy was trying to stop me from getting steamrolled by the rickety red carriage hurtling down the street at a solid 5kph. The only thing I could do was laugh at myself, mumble thanks to the guy, and duck into the Mango outlet to hang my head in shame amidst the racks of discounted sequined sweaters.
This incident really made me realize how defensive and aggressive I had become, how much I expected the worst from men, and also how bad I am at recognizing basic traffic patterns. I don’t want to assume that everyone has bad intentions. I don’t want to believe that treating people with warmth will give people the impression that I’m on the prowl or that treating people with coldness will keep me safe because neither are inherently true. But after having so many incidents where people have mistaken friendliness for flirtation, walking on the street for solicitation, and conversation for invitation, many women would rather sacrifice manners if it could mean possibly saving themselves from experiences ranging from unpleasant to extremely dangerous.
I was in Morocco during the 2012 American presidential election and the owners of the hostel I was staying in knew I was keeping a close eye on the race. I had stayed up late at an internet café across the street the night before chatting with friends and family as the individual state results came in, but eventually I tired and resolved to wake up early to check the results. The next morning I sprinted across the street and my personal reaction to the election results was relief and happiness. Feeling good, I headed back to the hostel, but was met with several whistles, hisses, and jeers from a group of men as I crossed the street. A teenage boy then tried to talk to me, first about going on a tour to some nearby ruins and then about engaging in some no strings attached casual sex with him at 7:30 in the morning. By the time I had walked the twenty meters back to my hostel my joy had dissipated and I felt furious and disgusted. I barked at the hostel owners as they happily invited me to join them for a celebratory tea and slammed my room door in their faces. Who knows what they thought of me or my country and culture after how I had treated them?
Street harassment leads many people to view strangers as predators rather than humans and to approach people with hostility rather than kindness. It can make a cheerful person having a perfectly good day into an irritable person who feels angry at the world. Eventually a coping mechanism of being unsociable and withdrawn derived from a fear and distrust of others can become engrained in a person’s character and even in an entire culture. Thus, for me one of the saddest effects of street harassment are the unknown missed opportunities – the polite chat between two respectful strangers that could have been struck up, the smile or joke that could have brightened someone’s day, the tourist that could have saved a lot of time wandering around had they asked the group of tea-drinking men for directions. For every person who harasses or leers at someone on the street there are thousands of others who have actively chosen not to degrade someone in public. But they aren’t the ones who stick out in our minds or influence us to treat others better.
The other day I was walking down an empty street at night when a car slowed and honked. Rolling my eyes and mentally ticking a box next to ‘creep’, I thought of how much I hate streets in general and kept walking. After a few more beeps, I glanced over, broken Turkish speech about perverts and abstract spiritual concepts at the ready. It was a single man saying ‘excuse me’ and asking for directions, which I gave him. He thanked me and went on his way.
I’ve been here for almost three years, I’m getting ready to leave here in a few days and I just thought that I could share some parts of my notes/experiences on Istanbul. These are tips, complaints, comments, but to me, they are just jokes. That’s how I made it through every day being a visibly foreign woman in Istanbul.
On the Street:
- Of course, don’t wear revealing clothes! I cannot wear any skirts, nor shorts, not even capris. All my clothes should cover my shoulders (and preferably covering my ass). No high-heels, no make-up. (Otherwise, men will make me feel like a hooker, really) Even dresses can bring unwanted attention. My husband screens out clothing for me when I go shopping, which really pisses me off. Even if I end up buying the cute little whatever and wearing it, I’ll end up coming home feeling dirty and immediately hide it in a suitcase.
- Men rarely talk directly to me, most of the time they talk about me, in front of me or around me, or behind me. They love making jokes about the way I’m supposed to sound when I open my mouth; the type of shit I’m supposed to eat, and how lucky I am to be living in such a civilized place (i.e. the world’s best city and the world’s best religion) and married a Turkish man.
- I’ve had people asking me where I live in America and when I told them North Carolina, they kept asking me about North Korea.
- Street vendors always tell me “konichiwa” and keep repeating this phrase until I float off.
- I had this jackass follow my friend and I out of the bar and keep asking me if I’m Japanese. I told him no and kept walking but he kept bugging and said, “Excuse me, excuse me! I wanna learn Japanese! Does ‘konichiwa’ mean ‘good morning?’” I repeated myself about 3 times that I’m not Japanese and I can’t speak Japanese and finally told him that he’s a fat-fuck and please fuck off. He looked extremely confused.
- The men keep leering at me no matter what I’m wearing. I just get speculations about what I do when I wear suits. Is she a banker? Is she an agent? Is she a teacher? Is she blah blah? Blah blah blah blah?
- I was walking through the square of Şirinevler this one weekend afternoon. I was still working at Osmanbey, and was about an hour away from home at that time. Anyway, there was a çiğ köfte stall that just opened and there was a clown walking on stilts. As soon as he saw me, he decided to walk behind me and make these annoying kicking gestures, everyone laughed. I was so angry, I wanted to turn around and grab those damn stilts and bring his funny ass down. But I didn’t. I kept on walking, like what I do 99.99% of the time.
- My friend from Chicago, in the last months that she was in Istanbul, switched to the plainest kind of T-shirt and jeans that you can think of to avoid harassment. My other friend from England always wore dark shades, (it didn’t matter if it was day or night), to avoid eye contact and therefore harassment.
- I’ve purchased a pair of cacophony-proof earphones for going to and from work. Problem is that it’s killing my hearing after using it every day for 2 years. I was using other earphones before but they didn’t cancel out noises enough. These are some of the things I’ve heard shouted out at me: YES! NO! JA-PON! WAOW-WAOW-WAOW, Ching-ching-chong-ching, marijuana, çirkin (ugly), some kind of land animals sounds, flying animal sounds, sea animal sounds, etc…
- These are the kind of reactions I get: leering, giggling, whispering into another man’s ears, following, eavesdropping, starring and walking into something (seen that a few times), wouldn’t get out of the damn way because they were too busy giggling, starring or ogling, elbowing, popping up in front of me to call me“JA-PON!” and then popping back into the crowds.
- I’ve been groped and leered at for so long to the point that before I go out, I practice my attack moves. The last time that I was groped I attacked right back.
- We were reading about some international heroes in Intermediate class and the students were to match the names with the portraits. When it came to Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the girls decided to be funny and said in Turkish, “Haha, it’s sooo obvious, su-iki-chinki…” A student glared at her and the others bowed their heads low. I jumped on it and asked her if my name sounds like “su-iki-chinki” and she immediately shut her mouth. Funny, we were just talking about racism towards the black folks from the articles about international heroes.
- I was teaching a class with my Canadian friend before she left about a year back. As the students were supposed to be concentrating on their tasks, all I’ve heard was whispers about the “Japan twins”. My friend is a Native from Canada. Nowhere near Japan.
In Everyday interactions:
- This one time my black friend and I sat down at a bar at Osmanbey (it happens everywhere, even though some people deny it). As soon as we sat down, the waiter asked, “You, Africa? You, Japon?” We just talked about Turkish stereotypes and a fine example just popped up right in front of us. We laughed and the waiter didn’t get it at all.
- I was having a nice lunch at my favorite kebap restaurant in Bakırköy when the waiter that I call “abi” (brother) came to me and told me how much he hated dirty Arabs (there were a family of five Arabs sitting two tables in front of me). The waiters just kept making jokes and laughing about how the Arabs don’t shower and that they are really rude. Say, who’s nasty and rude again?
- How many times have taxi or minibus drivers or store owners tried to get me to give them their number, or asked me personal questions? One time a taxi driver even tried to flash me.
Excuses People Give Me For Being Harassed:
- I’ve been told that if I wear a headscarf, I would avoid being harassed. The tea lady at our school is Turkish, she wears a headscarf and she gets perverts on the bus trying to grope her too. And I wear long sleeve shirts and long pants at all times!
- My mother-in-law told me it’s because foreign women come to Turkey for prostitution, so men just assume that I’m a prostitute. I corrected her: most foreign women are NOT prostitutes. How come they think that the whole world came here just to try to please Turkish men? Are you serious?
- “They’re Kurdish.” This is the answer that I often get when I talk about some of my experiences on the streets. I’ve heard students say it, too. I’ve even heard my husband say it, and his mother speaks Kurdish!
- “They’re Arabs.”
- “They’re Gypsies.”
They aren’t just Kurds, Arabs, or Gypsies. I’m not a prostitute, and a headscarf won’t stop it. This is not even half of what I’ve been through. There’s something EVERY SINGLE DAY! And most of these happens when there are other people around. It’s sad to say that nobody ever got my back but once.
Check out Canimiz Sokakta Kacie Kocher at the Tedx Reset this April in Istanbul, speaking on gender, choice, and the role of foreigners. Watch it, tweet it, share it. All of us at Canimiz Sokakta are super proud!
This was a new one on me, but doubtless others have run into it before — some guy came up to me asking for directions to something or other. I noticed he had a smart-type phone in his hand, so I asked him if he had Internet (so he could look up his question better than I could answer and I could go away). He shows it to me and there’s a porno in progress on the screen. I was taken by surprise, though I shouldn’t have been, but managed to spit out “Pervert!” before I crossed the street to get away from him.
In October 2012, Istanbul was selected as one of the cities for hosting a new UN center for women’s rights. This wing of the UN was created in 2010 and is dedicated to giving women and girls a voice. Check out the article from SEtimes – how do you think it’ll affect street harassment in Istanbul?
I was walking home late one night, I was with a friend but he was pretty drunk so I told him to just go home and that I could walk the last 5 minutes to my house by myself just fine. There were no people on the streets except for one man, walking on the same sidewalk as myself. When we were about to pass each other he reached out and grabbed my wrist. He said something in Turkish that I did not understand and I told him to let go. He then whispered at me in English, “this is our moment” and tried to pull me towards him but I twisted out of his grip and began to walk away. He then chased me and grabbed me again but I told him no in Turkish and again twisted out of his grip. As I walked or maybe ran away, he reached out to try and grab my crotch and butt from the back but he only touched my butt. It was fucking disgusting and it made me feel disgusting as well.
I was also harassed again recently in Gulbag, it was early Sunday night and I had to walk between two cars and a man was coming the opposite direction. He wouldn’t really move out of the way for me but I moved pretty quickly to avoid him and he reached out to try and touch my crotch but missed because I moved so quickly. I was so confused, I thought maybe it was an accident but he gave me a sick little smile and I was too in shock to say anything. Mostly I just thought, what the fuck is wrong with people? I also saw a Turkish woman get spit on on the metrobus, I’m getting really fed up with the patriarchal culture here, it makes me absolutely fucking sick.
Wishing everyone a great bayram from all of us at Hollaback Istanbul!
Women Platform Against Sexual Violence is against sexual violence! This platform’s website offers women some emergency advices in a case of a rape or sexual harassment/violence. Check out their resources and forward it to a friend in need: (in Turkish) .
Did you read this story about a lawyer who chased down her harasser? After being harassed she chased him 2 kilometers to make sure he didn’t get away and would be brought to justice. She said that she was fueled by just knowing he would be out there free to harass other women and that guys like him had to be stopped. Read more .
Trans Pride March 2012 is Sunday, June 24th at Taksim Square. For more details: http://www.facebook.com/events/225196504254734/
Istanbul Pride March 2012 is Sunday, July 1st at Taksim Square. For more details: http://www.facebook.com/events/333966976652121/
If you have any pictures from the marches, post them on our facebook page: www.facebook.com/canimizsokakta
As a sociology graduate student researching street harassment in Istanbul, my graduate research brought me to Hollaback Istanbul last semester. Since then, I have been volunteering with the organization which is how I came to coordinate the “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign and bring together my activism and my academic interests.
Some of the women that I talked to as a part of my graduate thesis research told me that when facing public harassment- either witnessing or experiencing it themselves- they prefer to remain silent. One of the reasons preventing them from speaking out is that they are worried about the opinions and reactions of people around them. “What would all these strangers around me think if I made a scene? What if I am the only one who thinks it’s wrong? What if nobody’s got my back?”
But what if they simply don’t know how to react? An intervention from a bystander could change what you remember as an unpleasant and emotional damaging incident on a bus when a guy rubs against you to a memory of how willing people are to stand up for you and against public harassment. Yet, usually other passengers witness the harassment, and no one says anything or comes to help you.
The role of harassment witnesses should and can be reversed from passive individuals standing by to helping bystanders. How? Hollaback Istanbul in corroboration with the award-winning bystander program Green Dot has worked to bring a bystander campaign titled “I’ve got your back!” [“Arkandayım!”] to Turkey. The campaign aims at educating people to intervene when they witness public harassment and encourage people to stand up for victims.
There are several ways in which a bystander can put an end to an incident of public harassment: ranging from asking the target if he or she is okay to directly addressing the harasser or reporting him or her to the authorities (a police officer, supervisor, public transportation attendant, etc.). As a part of “I’ve got your back!” campaign, Canimiz Sokakta: Hollaback Istanbul has included the ‘I’ve got your back!’ page that covers other possible bystander-in-action strategies on their website.
Apart from learning how to have each other’s backs in real life, people will be able do it virtually by submitting a bystander intervention story on Hollaback Istanbul’s web-page. A green dot will appear on the interactive map each time a bystander story is submitted. We hope and believe that in the future all the red dots from victims of street harassment will soon be outnumbered by the green ones.
Submitting stories will become easier with the new iPhone and Droid applications that will be available to download from Hollaback Istanbul’s web-page. The applications will allow people to submit stories, pictures, and videos of street harassment directly from their phones. How will it help to fight street harassment? A popular YouTube video of Nicola Briggs confronting a flasher on New York subway proves that a bystander in action is powerful and a bystander with a camera on their phone is even more so. The video of Briggs confronting the harasser (who was later sentenced to 4 months of jail) was filmed and uploaded on YouTube by a bystander.
In the survey titled “Sexual Harassment in Public Areas in Istanbul” that I have conducted as a part of the research for my graduate thesis, some respondents indicated that they would ignore the scene of public harassment rather than intervening in it. We believe that the campaign brought to Turkey by Hollaback and Green Dot will alter this reality. It is important for a target of street harassment to know somebody’s got their back. This assurance by others and the community at large will give witnesses the impetus to holla back, respond to, and take actions against harassers. Only then will public places become safe and welcoming for everyone.
[My graduate research mentioned in this article is still in progress, and all results are preliminary.]no comments
March 18-24th was International Anti-Street Harassment week. Around the world panel discussions, film showings and marches happened to bring light to the all too common problem of street harassment. Here’s a brief summary of what we did on our end.
We partnered up with the US Consulate to put together a free screening of Miss Representation, which filled up thetheater at the Pera Museum. We had a follow up discussion on Turkish media with with distinguished speakers: Nevval Sevindi (journalist and founder of KADER), Zeynep Dereli (politician and businesswoman), and Nancy Rinke Ozturk (publisher). See pictures from the event here.
Next we visited Galatasaray University to show the film War Zone and have a discussion about harassment and how this issue is more about power than about sex. Well received, we intend on doing more work with Galatasaray University soon!
On to social media. We have put together a number of images to share throughout social media outlets and bring attention to street harassment as a problem many have to face.
Finally, we are proud to present a video that our volunteers have made about breaking the silence about street harassment!
Break the silence in Istanbul and share your story! Street harassment isn’t just a problem one week every year in March. It’s a major problem around the world and its experienced by most people. We’re listening to your stories, we’re here to tell you you’re not wrong and you didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and more than all of this, we are here to stand together and change the society we live in and the expectations we have for what’s normal. Join us in making an Istanbul we all deserve to live in.
The Canimiz Sokakta: Hollaback Istanbul team-one comment