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.