A couple nights ago I was ambushed by a group of teenagers. While it was the most invasive and violent form of harassment I’ve suffered yet, the night ended with me feeling the most empowered I’ve ever felt after being harassed.
I’ve lived in Istanbul – on both the Asian and European sides – for nearly two years. Like many women I know, I am harassed everyday whether it is leering, whistling, hissing, stalking or (my personal favorite) what I like to call casual groping.
Yes, I was harassed Stateside. But the stuff back home typically didn’t escalate past honking and whistling, and usually from speeding pick-up trucks. Not that that’s not bad, of course, but I had never seen, for example, a woman beaten up in the street in broad daylight in front of a bunch of people before I moved here. I had never experienced such blatant leering or butt grabbing. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed in the US because I had become desensitized to it, or maybe it happens more in larger cities like Chicago and New York.
Anyway, I digress…when I first moved here, I admittedly didn’t respond to harassment. It was a combination of shock, fear and humiliation. Like many women I know, I internalized the harassment. It must be something I’m doing, I thought. I changed how I dressed, how I walked, how I behaved. On the streets, I stopped smiling and looked down. The harassment continued, of course.
Meanwhile, I grew tired, angry, stressed out. I felt alone. I wanted desperately to be respectful and culturally sensitive but couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
But then I talked with other women, and I realized I was not alone. And I became more passionate about and active in the advancement of women’s rights in Turkey, the US and around the world. As a journalist in Istanbul, I made my niche discrimination and violence against women.
As I wrote everyday about cases of harassment and violence, I realized responding in the moment is essential if we want to put a stop to street harassment and the misogynistic mentality behind it.
I remember writing about a Turkish lawyer who was jogging when a guy grabbed her and fled. Refusing to let her harasser escape, she boldly chased her harasser for twenty minutes before police arrived and apprehended him.
Of course saying we must respond and actually doing it are very different. It took me months to be able to work up the courage to finally respond in Turkish to verbal harassment I received every morning on my way to work. The harasser was taken aback, and it felt good.
And then I was attacked a couple nights ago by the group of teenage boys. I didn’t see it coming; I was only a couple seconds away from my apartment. As they violently groped me, all of the frustration, shock and fear I always feel when I’m harassed came flooding back. I broke down into teary, blubbering mess. But then I looked back and saw their faces. They were smirking, laughing, pointing.
Taking a note from the lawyer, I sprinted after them. I screamed and pointed so bystanders would help, and about 30 did show up. One of the kids’ shoe fell of as he scrammed. I hurled it at him.
For the first time ever, I called the police to file a complaint. When that officer wasn’t very helpful, my room mate and I visited the nearest police station. We spent almost an hour explaining how we feel when we are harassed with a couple of plainclothes officers…and we demanded they do something about it. Now there are two more officers stationed where women are harassed on a daily basis.
Since I moved here, the harassment has not changed. But my reaction has. I’ve decided to take control.