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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.
After living in Turkey for an extensive amount of time, I was used to the general “cat calls” and typical Turkish men’s expressions while walking down the street. No matter how I dressed, I was always looked at as if I were a “piece of meat”, or as if the Turkish men had never seen a girl before. Many of these men were in their late 40s or 50s, which was quite disgusting.
While visiting my host sister in Sakarya (a city not too far from Istanbul), I was shocked at how the Turkish men behaved. Before it was just looking, but now it was constant verbal abuse. My sister and I couldn’t walk anywhere in the city center without being followed and verbally harassed, mostly by teenage boys around our age. Although I tried to consider the harassment flattering, I just couldn’t help but feel violated. I was always nervous that one of them would actually make a move to touch me, and I constantly felt uncomfortable, as if it were my fault that the boys reacted in such ways. Even when we ignored the boys, they still wouldn’t leave us alone. We would have to hide in a store or quickly find a place to escape so they would no longer follow us. Often times we would have to call some of our close guy friends as a means for protection. This is simply not fair. Turkish women, all women in general, should not have their freedoms violated in this way.
Women should be able to dress however they please; whichever way is most comfortable for them and not have to worry about being harassed for doing so. They should be able to go wherever they’d like without worrying about getting unwanted attention. This behavior from men is absolutely unacceptable. Why is this happening?
After spending 3 weeks in the country of the free (relatively free) – Russia- where people wear anything they want (up to pulling colorful tights over their heads) without fearing the public opinion, I returned to Istanbul. Going for 2 days without being harassed in public (probably because of not going out much) I gathered all my courage had my hair cut short (despite all those promises to myself that I will never do it again before I left Turkey for good), put on a pair of shorts and a bright t-shirt and went out to a supermarket ALONE. I must have breached all social norms in Turkey by having my hair short like a boy, revealing my legs, and- tövbe- wearing something that attracts attention (A BRIGHT T-SHIRT!). As expected, not even 5 min passed when I heard a rude comment from a garbage collector boy. I would have ignored him if he didn’t repeat it three or four times. I turned around and came up with something I thought is the biggest insult to a Turkish man’s masculinity- I called him “a gay”. His face revealed confusion. His friend, another garbage collector, started laughing. The first guy mumbled something like he had a sister; without hearing the rest I asked him if he would be okay if someone said that (what he said to me) to his sister. The second guy intervened saying Dogru konusuyor (“She’s right”). My harasser apologized to me. And as I walked away I heard him yelling Orospusun sen (“You’re a bitch”) twice.
(image taken from radikal.com.tr)
After saying Good-Bye to my friend, I started to walk the 200 meters to my house and was immediately followed by two men on either side of me. They were walking very close to me and shouting things. I ran into the corner shop where I knew the owner and he had his son walk me home.
I was going to school by foot. It was 9am, a Monday in October. Suddenly, a car crossed my way. “Everything’s normal,” I thought. But the same car came again, in the other direction. And it came a second time! Eventually, the car drive stopped a few meters before me on the pavement. I was a bit surprised. The driver opened its window and said just ‘Hello’. It was all. Nevertheless his voice and his look were saying to me “you are a prostitute and I will give you money if you come in my car.” It made me feel ashamed.
When did “hello” become a word of harassment?
Today around 6 PM I was walking with two other foreign friends and colleagues (one brown-haired and the other blond) toward the Yenibosna metrobus stop, on the sidewalk of the E-5. Three young men in a white van passed us by and shouted “hello hello!” in the obnoxious way I think all foreign women who’ve lived in Turkey long enough have experienced. My friends didn’t notice. I was just going to ignore it like all the other times when that has happened, sometimes with the men shouting in-your-face and obnoxiously, sometimes quietly, almost muttering to themselves as they walk by briskly. But then I noticed that the car had pulled over toward the sidewalk ahead of us. I tried not to panic but had a sinking feeling about why they had pulled over. And I was right: as soon as we were passing by they started shouting again, “hello, hello!”, this time louder. Again, my friends didn’t notice and I ignored them, walking past quickly. As they pulled away they shouted for a third time, this time loud enough that my friends and people around us noticed. This time I shouted back a few choice words in Turkish. People then looked at me strangely. I couldn’t see the men’s faces — they were probably laughing and mocking me. I on the other hand was shaking from anger.
It makes me sad that even a seemingly innocuous word, one that’s supposed to be used in greeting, is used as a word of harassment, shouted like a threat, by some men here. It’s a shame.
A friend and I were walking to catch a dolmus this past Thursday night after meeting for dinner and drinks. We were in a cheerful mood, but weren’t being loud or attracting much attention. I noticed a man walking rather aggressively right behind us. Although he gave me a funny feeling, I hoped he was just trying to get around us so I moved into the street to make space for him. My friend hadn’t noticed the man and laughed at me for walking into the street at which pointed he groped her, then quickly walked ahead and disappeared into the crowd. It all happened so quickly my friend was still giggling as she registered it, at which point her face changed to one of shock and annoyance. We didn’t let it spoil the night, but it’s troubling how a small act like that can change the entire environment and mood. As we kept walking, the groping made the men calling/mumbling things at us (a normal occurrence) much more noticeable and menacing.
This story happened 23 March 2012 in Dudullu, Umraniye (Istanbul) at 19:30. I was waiting for a bus, suddenly a man (about 26- 28 years old) was starring at me. He told me, “Hey, look at me, I know you. Hey look at me!” I refused to look at him and so he got angry and started to yell: “Hey! Why did not you look at me?! I told you to look at me!” and he started to walk towards me quickly. I was so afraid but luckily the bus came and I was able to get on the bus, but I was shaking after that event.
I live in Istanbul and in many ways I really love this place. Two months ago, I was really ashamed of this city and found myself apologizing to others because of how we were treated on the streets. A few American friends were visiting the city and we were able to meet up and have a cup of coffee after I finished work. Walking down Istiklal to one of my trusty cafes I was victim to more harassment that I have ever experienced within a five minute time frame in Istanbul. At 7pm on a Monday night, men were following us, calling out, groups trying to surround us and dominate us. We were four foreign women. Harasser after harasser we were followed and shouted at consistently throughout our entire walk. I was mortified.
I have walked down Istiklal with three other foreign women before and have never received some much negative and aggressive attention. It was because my friends Asian-American, whose parents were from China. It was racist harassment by multiple men, multiple groups, and my friends and I were targets because we were different. Harassment isn’t just sexual. It can be racist and it can be just as hurtful and threatening. We should find ways to open the dialogue about this too.
I’ve always been a feminist and a supporter of Hollaback!, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I really saw firsthand the impact of rape culture and harassment. I’m shaken and horrified, and I urge anyone who has never been a target of harassment to realize that yes, this is all of our problem.
This Saturday, while we were at a party, my girlfriend was speaking with some guy in a different room. Suddenly, she ran up to me and said “we need to go, right now.” I nodded and went to grab our things, while she went outside. When I came outside, she was literally being chased by the man she was speaking to, and was yelling. The I confronted him, and his response was “You don’t know what we were talking about, man.” He literally blamed the victim in the midst of fucking chasing her, as if she had somehow asked to be menaced and pursued screaming in the street.
On the walk home, she couldn’t stop shaking and was literally paralyzed by fear, repeating several times that she was “terrified.” They had been discussing gender and masculinity, which the guy turned into the pick-up line “I want to fuck you in the ass.” My girlfriend told him that she wasn’t interested and he got angry and irrational. He told her that he was “going to fuck her no matter what she wanted” and that he’d “do bad things to her.” His harassment spilled into the street and became physical when she left the room. If it wasn’t for me, I don’t know what would have happened.
I don’t think this story is uncommon. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been harassed; someone you know has been, and we all bear responsibility for ending it.one comment
Let me start by telling the truth: I love Turkey. Istanbul has been my home for over two years now. I studied hard to learn Turkish and now know it at an advanced level. I have generally been treated with respect, if not with a special kindness reserved for guests, by the thousands of people from Turkey whom I have met. Yet another, smaller truth – a sadder one that I don’t like to think about – is that I had never been called a nigger before I came to Turkey.
This may come as a surprise to those who read the article “American Minority Students Defy ‘Typical American’ clichés in Turkey,” published in the Hürriyet Daily News on March 26, 2011. The author of the article states: “[L]ack of physical diversity [in Turkey] results in Turks greeting American racial and ethnic minorities with curiosity instead of contempt, marking a stark difference in how the students are treated as minorities in their own country.”
I do not entirely discount this view. But through my own experiences and those of others, I know that there are other, less PR-friendly stories to being a foreigner of dark complexion living in Turkey.
The most recent incident happened in Gümüşsuyu, a well-to-do neighborhood just off of Taksim Square in central Istanbul. I was walking and texting at the same time when I noticed a large group of adolescent boys approaching from the other direction. I remember the familiar thought passing through a corner of my mind that there could be trouble – a feeling that had started to come to me unheeded after walking the streets of Istanbul for two years. I tensed up but kept walking, my eyes focused on my cell phone.
I was right to be worried. “Zenci!” (pronounced zen-jee) one of the group yelled, followed by the laughter of some of the other boys in his group. I was so shocked I stopped walking. The way he shouted that word at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, hit me with the force of a physical blow.
Without thinking, I turned to him as he was walking away. I lifted my sunglasses and for a brief moment caught his glance as I, too, started to yell, in a Turkish mangled by emotion. “Seni anlamadığımı mı sanıyorsun? Kimsin sen? Gerizekali! Rezil!” (“You think that I don’t understand you? Who are you? Idiot! Scoundrel!”) As I yelled the group kept walking, and some of them mimicked me. But for the few seconds that I caught his glance and bore down on him with my fury, I could see surprise, apprehension, and maybe even the slightest bit of (albeit quickly concealed) shame.
They kept walking, and I continued on my way in the opposite direction, shaking. I was just thinking that what I had done, yelling in the middle of the street, would perhaps be considered “ayıp” or “shameful” in the eyes of some Turks, when a well dressed, middle aged man got out of his parked car and asked me in fluent English, “Why were you
screaming?” “He called me ‘zenci’ and thought I wouldn’t understand” I replied. “Oh” the man said, with a look that made it clear he thought that I had overreacted, that I had been silly or stupid to react at all.
It would be wrong to say that every person from Turkey who uses the word “zenci” does so with the meaning of “nigger.” I am by no means an expert on Turkish and
have not done academic research on the term. As far as I can tell, many people use it innocently, with the same intended meaning as the neutral and perhaps politically
correct term “siyahi,” or “black person.”
At the same time, however, it is clear when the word “zenci” is being used as a term of ridicule or degradation towards a person with a dark complexion. Just to mention one instance, I witnessed some Turkish boys yell “zenci” tauntingly at black African men as they walked down the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street . (Racism, like street harassment, is sex-blind.) And Cem Yılmaz, the famous Turkish comedian, has at least one sketch where he jokes about the genitals of “zenci” men.
Even when not meant maliciously, the use of the term reflects an ignorance that stands in contrast to Turkey’s status as a rising, modern power. At the moment the İHH (the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid, of Mavi Marmara renown) is waging a large campaign to get Turks to do their part to help drought-stricken Somalia. The Turkish government has also put aiding Somalia on its agenda, as part of its broader outreach to Africa. Yet a friend tells me that in the conservative town of Konya in central Turkey many Somali refugees living there only go out at night due to the discrimination, jeers, etc. that they face during the day; and a Senegalese friend recounted to me how he gave up on going on vacation after someone made a racist comment to him before he got on a bus, to name just two instances.
To state the obvious, none of this is specific or peculiar to Turkey: racists and racism exist in every country. Indeed, it can be said that the “birth place of modernity”, Europe, has become a hotbed for racist policies and ideas against Muslims, and the United States is still grappling with the issue.
Yet while in the US and parts of Europe there is a history of discourse on racism and race relations, my sense is that this is not quite the case in Turkey. My opinion stems partly from the fact that different Turks have told me unconditionally that “Turks are not racist,” a view that I believe – depending on its reach – has negative implications for minorities who are citizens of Turkey as well as for foreigners living here.
Of course, my knowledge of Turkey’s history, culture and society is by no means omniscient, so I very well could be wrong about my diagnosis of the problem of harassment against foreigners of dark complexion in Turkey and its implications. But the truth remains that this specific form of discrimination exists in Turkey. As a person who loves Turkey and has made it a second home, I sincerely hope that this truth will be faced and addressed within my lifetime.4 comments
This happened about 9 years ago when I was at a hairdresser’s with my mum who was visiting me. We were the only customers that day, and my mum was having her hair done in the front room and I was having mine done in the back room because I also wanted my hair washed. The first sign that something wasn’t quite right was the extra time that he spent massaging my head while he washed my hair, but I didn’t think anything of it since that’s happened elsewhere with no other repercussions. That was followed up with complements about how I looked (I was dressed up to go out, so again, I thought he was just being polite) and later smalltalk. He asked me a number of personal questions such as about where I was from. By this time, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable but at the same time am continually second-guessing myself that I’m probably just over-reacting.
By chance, around this time, there was unfortunately a power outage! Whether or not I’d been over-reacting, I decided that I couldn’t continue to sit there (with wet hair) so I got up and went to the other room where my mum was. We chatted for a few minutes (I didn’t want her to see that I was feeling uncomfortable) and the power returned. The small talk continued on the hairdresser’s side, but by this time I was giving monosyllabic answers of yes or no. Finally, he asked me for my phone number and thinking I was being quite clever, I gave him my husband’s business card thinking that he’ll get the message. Guess not, because a few minutes later he asked me for a kiss! I couldn’t believe what he’d said, and wasn’t sure I’d understood correctly, so I asked him to repeat what he’d said. I answered with a stunned “NO!”, and he had the nerve to ask me why! In my poor Turkish, I told him “Because I’m married and I’m happy!”. Oddly, he didn’t seem to think anything of my answer and merrily went on his way to finish up my hair.
After the hairstyle was finished, I went to pay the woman in the other room and at the same time phoned my husband and told him what had happened (he’s Turkish). I wanted to pay her first because I didn’t want there to be any question of me making up the story to get out of paying for the hairstyle. I then passed the phone to the woman (she may have been the salon owner) and she just shook her head as he yelled at her. My husband asked me to stay there until he arrived, but I just couldn’t. I was so uncomfortable I just wanted to leave, so my mum and I left. My husband and I returned to the salon 5 or 10 minutes later, but of course the a**hole had already left. The worst part was that the woman owner didn’t believe me (or pretended not to believe me so as not to admit any guilt)! My husband yelled at her and the other hairdresser (who hadn’t done anything, but he was just there) in Turkish while I yelled in English. I was near tears and shaking with anger as we walked out of there. I felt so helpless and so angry and didn’t know what to do. Now, years later, I’ve pretty much gotten over it and have changed the way I behave here. In N. America, it’s common to have small talk with strangers, men or women. Here, it’s not. My husband said that a Turkish woman would have cut the small talk short with a comment like, “Shut up and do your job.” or “That’s none of your business.” Now, I’m very wary of small talk (even though I’d like to practice my Turkish) and much more cautious!
Today I was walking home from work, as I do 5 days a week, the same busy route. Nearing my street, there is always a line of taxis (right by Taksim Square), and while passing by, the parked taxi right next to me honked its horn. Startled I turned to see the man in the front seat pawing at the window, hanging out his tongue and his passengers laughing and calling out. It were as if he were an animal in a cage trying to get out because he saw something he liked. Seriously guy, you are an animal. Great job.