Bystanders in Action – by Mariah Pittman

I cannot think of a single female friend in Istanbul who has not faced verbal or physical harassment in the streets of this incredible city at least once. Whether it was my friend who was trapped in a minibus after all the other passengers had exited before her stop and the driver refused to stop and let her off, or the friend who was grabbed while walking down her own street in a family neighborhood, or the friend who was chased down a busy street followed by shouts of “Natasha, Natasha” (a name that has become equivalent with prostitute in Turkey), it seems every woman has her own story of a time she felt unsafe during her normal daily activity. After living in Istanbul for nearly a year and a half, I have learned to navigate Istiklal Street and others like it with a set of invisible blinders shielding my view of leering men who often walk unnecessarily close and a set of enormous headphones to block out the sound of their taunts. Personally, two instances stand out in my memory of times when neither headphones nor invisible blinders could help me escape—once on the Metrobüs and once mere meters from my flat in Taksim.
In the first instance, I was riding home with a friend after watching Croatia defeat Turkey in football at Galatasaray Stadyum. I thought the hunched, aged man standing behind me had merely bumped into me due to the bus’s abrupt turn but when I felt a hand on a my back, I knew it had not been a mishap. Although I stared at him in shock and jumped away, my Turkish failed me and left me at a loss for words in the suddenness of the moment. A Turkish woman who had witnessed the event stepped in and publicly shamed the man by calling him out for what he had done. She then apologized to me in English for his behavior and advised me to stand with my back to the wall when riding the Metrobüs in the future.
In the second instance, I had said goodbye to a friend on Istiklal Street and was walking the 200 meters to my flat when I realized that two men were following me on either side. Afraid they would discover where I lived, I ducked into the nearby Tekel shop where I often buy water and snacks. The owner recognized me and after I described what had happened, kindly told me to wait there some minutes until his son could accompany me home. By that time the two men had left, and I was able to enter my apartment building safely.
Both of these stories stand out to me not only because of the disgust, anger and helplessness that I felt at the time, but also because of the assistance that was given to me by a stranger and a mere acquaintance. In popular psychology, there is a concept called the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely it is that people will help someone in distress because of the diffusion of responsibility and the desire to act in a socially acceptable manner. This phenomenon is often described in textbooks with the controversial and often criticized example of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese, a woman who was murdered in New York City in the 1960s while her neighbors watched. What strikes me about my experience on the Metrobüs and when I was followed on Istiklal Street was that the fellow bus rider and shop owner who helped me acted surprisingly and were not affected by the “bystander effect.” They took it upon themselves to help someone whom they owed nothing to.
Recently, Hollaback International has partnered with the Green Dot organization. In connection with Hollaback, a Green Dot represents a bystander who refuses to sit quietly back when someone is experiencing harassment. My Green Dots were the female bus rider and male shopkeeper who showed that I can feel safe in Istanbul and that there are others who are brave enough to be bystanders in action. It’s important for us to act the same way when we are in the shoes of the bystander–now, I feel that I must pay forward the compassionate actions of these two individuals by helping the next person I see who is experiencing harassment, whether it be based on religion, gender or any other factor. The time for silence is over, whether as a bystander or as a person who has experienced harassment and has yet to share his/her story.

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