My Experience with Harassment in Istanbul

 “Hello! Where are you from?”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Hello! Hello! I am right next to you!”
“Don’t you speak to Turkish people?”
“Mi corazone, contigo!”
“And why not?”
 “Excuse me, why don’t you talk to me?”
“Hello, pretty lady!”
“Lady, excuse me!”

Those are some of the things I heard while walking through the streets of Istanbul.

Let me preface this by saying Turkey is a beautiful country, full of history, amazing food, and inspiring vistas. I would go back, just never on my own again, and I caution women who plan to.  I did have an overall good time in the country, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts about Turkey. Yet, the instances of harassment from my first two days alone in Istanbul left me reeling. I felt powerless and afraid for a good few months after. It’s been hard getting over the guilt, even though ultimately, the responsibility of avoiding harassment isn’t a woman’s job.

My husband suggested that I write about this experience as it kept coming up as a recurring nightmare. I was hesitant to at first, but as time passed, I thought that maybe telling my story would bring about some kind of catharsis. It might even prevent someone else from making similar mistakes and having to go through a similar experience.

Initial Preparations

Before I left for Istanbul, I was so sure I was mentally prepared to deal with whatever Turkey threw at me in terms of predatory men. I knew from a friend who’d lived in Turkey that traveling as a girl (especially a foreign one) around Istanbul contained a high risk of unwanted attention. I thought that having dealt with my fair share of gross catcalls and wandering hands, I’d be ok to handle it. I considered myself a smart, level-headed girl – definitely not someone who sought unnecessary attention when out alone in an unfamiliar country. My ignorance and hubris would eventually get the best of me on this trip.

The First Day

The sky was overcast and the temperature a bit cold as I ventured out of my hotel.  I was pumped to be there after weeks of planning. My friend Meagan was set to arrive in two days from Germany, and we had a bunch of fun stuff planned. Since I had time to kill till then, I planned to spend my first day just soaking in Sultanahmet Square and hitting a few museums by myself. I circled the Hippodrome directly nearby and meandered through the outer courtyard of the Blue Mosque before I found myself at the fountains in front of the Hagia. There were lots of tourists milling about, and I was asked multiple times to help out a few tourists who wanted pictures. Everything seemed to be going fine as I moved toward the entrance of the Hagia Sophia.

I remember standing in front of the Hagia, taking in its salmon pink walls and magnificent dome. Awestruck and oblivious, I had taken out my camera and was focused on the lens. “Would you like me to take your picture? I’m Ekram.” A man dressed in black like one of the security guards appeared at my side.  Straightening up, I replied, “No thank you,” and moved away to try to get a better angle.

Ekram walked along with me, asking, “Is this your first time here? Where are you from?” Being a polite American, I answered his questions nonchalantly and proceeded on my way. He followed alongside me asking if I’d been to the Basilica Museum. As that was on my list for the day, I mentioned casually that I hadn’t. Ekram couldn’t believe it and proceeded to show me the way, pulling me along. I protested, saying he could just point me in the right direction. I started feeling uncomfortable at this point, as he stated, “After you go there, I will show you were I work. I’ll wait outside for you.” Alarm bells went off. Didn’t he work security at the Hagia? Wanting to get away, I ducked into the subterranean cave that was the Basilica Museum. A good half hour or so later, I saw Ekram still waiting for me outside. I hid amidst a group of exiting Chinese tourists and made my way in the opposite direction.

Feeling relieved, I found I was actually headed in the direction I wanted for the Archaeology Museum, another site on my list. I spied an ornately carved stone fountain along the way and stopped to take a couple pictures. As a group of men walked past, one broke away and approached me (I noticed lots of groups of men walking about). “Do you need help?” “No, no I’m fine. Thank you.” I said. “Oh, it is because you look like you’re from South America, you might need help!” “Nope, no no. Thank you.” I’m obviously taking a picture of a fountain, why would I need help? And why would looking South American correlate to being helpless? Unnerved and slightly frustrated, I hurried away as fast as I could as he shouted something after me. Thankfully, he didn’t follow me, instead rejoining his group of guys.

I remember excusing most of my feelings as cultural differences. Yet, the more I refused to acknowledge these helpful men, the more aggressive and cajoling some became. During the course of the day, about three different men swerved into me, saying they just “wanted to show me something.” I’d felt strange hands appear at the small of my back as I walked, trying to guide me, which I’d sternly brush off. Other brief, uncomfortable physical touches occurred as I walked by vendor stalls – some men reaching out to stroke my hair or running a finger along my sleeve.

In the Grand Bazaar, a shopkeeper grasped my upper arm and gave it a squeeze as I tried to browse. Stares would follow me around, eyes looking me up and down as I headed back to my hotel– you’d think they’d never seen a woman before! I remember feeling so relieved for making it back to my hotel successfully without anyone following.

The Unwanted Rug

Photo of a random storefront by the Mosaic Museum.

I did contemplate staying in my hotel room until Meagan arrived the next day, but then, I figured I was in Istanbul! I shouldn’t be so cowardly. I ought to go and explore! Steeling myself, I went to the nearby Islamic Arts Museum and the Mosaic Museum without difficulty. What happened after is what fills me shame and frustration.

While walking home from the Mosaic Museum, I passed the Blue Mosque’s courtyard to cut through the Hippodrome. It was the late afternoon. As I stopped to snap a few more pictures of the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mosque, I was approached by a fashionable man with a closely trimmed beard and long coat. “You’ll need to hide your hair if you’re going into the Blue Mosque!” he observed. “I know, thanks!” I replied before turning away. “American? You aren’t going in? Well, I walk with you.  Let me tell you, I live in America, too!”

Surprised, I stopped and we talked a bit about the history of the area and current politics. He told me his name was Chaos and a Kurdish rug seller in San Francisco. He seemed really nice at first and intrigued I was a teacher. He was the first local who really seemed to just want to chat with me. We talked about Trump, China, Erdogan, the history of the area, and foods I needed to try. He mentioned his rug store a few times and having me over for tea, but it was getting late, and I wanted to head home. I politely refused to follow him, and he insisted on walking me home after I saw his store. I didn’t plan to buy a rug. “No one PLANS to buy a rug,” he’d counter.

I became really uncomfortable that he wasn’t respecting my feelings and wouldn’t leave me alone. At that point, not wanting to show him where I lived, I found myself ducking in and out of stores. Frustratingly, Chaos waited outside. Just when I thought I lost him, he’d reappear, each time getting more insistent and angry. He switched it up by saying I could just come in for a cup of tea as “Turkish are hospitable and make unparalleled tea!” Me, panicking, flustered, stated I needed to use the bathroom ducked into yet another store. I wholeheartedly expected him to lose interest in me and find a new tourist to bother. 

Exiting a while later, my heart sank as I saw Chaos had a few male friends with him now near the entrance racks of scarves and shawls. They cornered me, acting friendly, talking about how we’re going to get tea and look at the rugs I would be so lucky to buy. “Handwoven by Kurdish brides!” Freaking out, trying to keep a level head, I yelled and tried to slip away, but they put their arms through mine and dragged me along. It all happened so fast, my mind was reeling. I found myself being carried up narrow stairs of a building into a room surrounded by carpets.

So many terribly scenarios flew through my mind: what might happen, who would miss me. I started to cry. Thankfully, these men were true to their word in terms of just wanting me to buy a carpet and drink apple tea. I didn’t want a carpet, and told them so. They reminded me that I came with them, I was a “friend” now, and I couldn’t take back my word (which I didn’t give). We sat together. I told them I really didn’t have much money as I lived off a teacher’s salary. They tutted and showed me pictures of their families. Chaos asked me for advice on a birthday gift for his potential fiancé. Beautiful, overpriced carpets upon carpets were rolled out and explained in minute detail. It felt surreal. I was given a demonstration about how their handwoven carpets were authentic compared to machine woven ones.

In the end, I left with a carpet. They made it clear I wasn’t leaving otherwise, no matter how long it took. The only reason I got out with a “great deal” – as they said – was that I agreed to bring my friend when she came (I wasn’t going to). Ironically, they warned me to watch out for Syrian refugees, especially Syrian men.

I eventually got back to my hotel room with my carpet and collapsed. I was shook. I felt utterly powerless. I felt small. I debated going to the police? But what could I even say? They’d for sure deny everything – in China, where I currently live, one of the first things expats learn is to not allow something to escalate to the point where authorities would need to be brought in because they will never take a foreigner’s side against their countrymen.  Even if the foreigner is right.

I should feel lucky. It could have been so much worse. When my husband heard my tears, his first thought was that I was forced to do something sexual. Thank the universe it wasn’t that. I got away with my wellbeing intact, if not my pride, at a loss of a few hundred dollars.

Following this experience, I was shaky, vulnerable and on edge the rest of the trip. I would beat myself on and off for being stupid. I spent a lot of my time walking Istanbul cowering, eyes down, hiding behind Meagan with a cover pulled around my face- especially around the area in Istanbul where I first saw Chaos. I did anxiously pass him again at one point trying to talk up other women, but I was wearing a headscarf and he didn’t recognize me.

Turkey is Best Tackled with a Friend

Meagan and I, in trying to protect each other from guys, made a pretty good team. Traveling around Istanbul was so much better with a friend. Having Meagan there was a huge relief.  We still got bothered, but having company was bolstering. When one of us would falter in the face of men who approached us, it was easy for the other to take charge, shut the guy down, and drag the other away. Meagan has perfected a technique, called her “stank face,” which is pretty powerful. I was on constant alert after the carpet incident, which might’ve helped, too. 

We also became really good at reminding each other not to reply (we’re both super nice and obviously American with wanting to automatically reply back to everyone), ignore men, and just to keep walking. “Hello, yes, where are you from? Why you no talk to me?! You hurt my heart!!” one man cried after us. We wore our hijabs quite a bit. We felt safer that way and noticed men would be waaay more polite when we did.

My Last Two Days in Istanbul

I was on my own for two days after Meagan left, feeling bad for (in my mind) allowing what had happened to mar my trip. I timidly went out on my own for bread and cheese the second to last day I was there. I found a little market store not far from my hotel. Entering, “Merhaba!” I came in greeting the storeowner. Not bothering to look up, “Merhaba,” he replied. Looking around, I grabbed a baguette and asked in English if he had any tuna. His head snapped up, and the owner came out around his small deli counter. “Hello! Where are you from?” “USA.” He shook my hand. “Oh! America! You are beautiful! You want tuna?” “Yes, please!” He still had my hand firmly in his. “Your hand is so strong! Where are you really from?” He leaned over to peer at my face. “DC” I mumbled, awkwardly tugging my hand out of his grasp. I tossed a small bottle of hot sauce into my shopping basket. “Oh, you like spicy! You spicy girl, let me show you some things.” There it was again. That phrase, the need to “show things.” Here, it was only honeycomb, thankfully. He asked me where I was staying and did try to pressure me into smoking hashish with him at his restaurant later that night, but I’d had enough of Turkish men by this time.

Honestly, I spent the afternoon and my last full day in town barricaded and happily puttering around my hotel room. I had fun reading and watching stray cats and seagulls appear on and off on the balcony outside my window. I just wanted to be back in China where I could blend in and wouldn’t have to deal with the leering and unwanted attention.

Upon my return, I think I dealt with a bit of PTSD for a few months. Every time I thought about Turkey I’d be hit by a wave of nausea and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Panic attacks would occur if I happened to hear the lilting of Turkish male voices on the news. This would bring back all the stress of avoiding eye contact and trying to shake men off (not to mention my carpet of shame that I hid at the back of my closet). I was a bit of a wreck for a while. Friends and family have been encouraging and supportive, and I think writing does make me feel better about it all. I was highly embarrassed at first to share about it when I got back from my trip, but time has made it easier to talk about.

Thoughts and Statistics

Cappadocia, another city in Turkey, was great! We weren’t harassed at all there. Why were the men we came across in Istanbul so blatantly gross and objectifying? I turned to the internet to help me process and make sense of it all. Actually, the more I read about the country, the more I understood that my experiences were part of a nation-wide epidemic.

I knew beforehand that Turkey is a secular state, meaning that religion and state are separate, with most cities in Turkey being fairly liberal. Having had Turkish friends growing up, I expected it to be easier going than it was. Honestly, though, I didn’t take into account the rise in socially conservative views under President Erdogan, nicknamed the ‘Caliph in Waiting,’ that puts this secularism under threat.

Image result for erdogan women'
PC: AA Photo

At a rally in 2015, Erdogan called women who aren’t mothers “deficient”. He’s also known to have urged women to have at least three children, denounced birth control as “treason,” and condemned feminists. This honestly reminded me of my summer internship in Malaysia a few years ago with Musawah and Sisters in Islam (SIS), where we were helping women fight against a similar kind of misogyny. While Turkey, as of yet, lacks the religious police you currently find in Malaysia, Erdogan continues to try to criminalize adultery and introduce “alcohol free zones.”

 In terms of statistics, Turkey ranks 130 out of 149 on the gender gap index of the World Economic Forum (based on access to health services, educational attainment, economic participation and political empowerment). Turkey’s laws permit both men and women to work, however only 32.2% of women in Turkey are part of the workforce!! This is the lowest of the 35 industrialized countries part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where the average is 63%! I feel that a strong tradition of Turkish women being cast as the homemaker hurts the nation overall, not just in terms of keeping women oppressed. A study by the consultancy firm McKinsey found that if women’s participation in the Turkish workforce increased to the OECD average, it could boost the country’s economic output by 20% by the year 2025.

Despite women in Turkey enjoying far better legal protections than many of their Middle Eastern neighbors (sexual assault -including marital rape- and domestic violence are punishable and divorce laws give women a stake in marital property), the overall trend in Turkish society is heavily patriarchal and dominated by traditional views. This is a deeply personal issue to me, having grown up around such so-called “traditional” values and taught to be subservient. Some studies link the culture of female subservience with soaring domestic violence rates in Turkey (something around 40% of Turkish women suffer physical abuse with around 300 to 400 women dying each year from it). Official statistics show a 1,400% increase in reported cases of domestic violence between 2003 and 2010. The Turkish government says it’s because women are being more encouraged to come forward.

Yet, while the Turkish government says it encourages women to step forward, it hasn’t done much to support these women. Gropers, catcalls, and other forms of harassment in Turkey are a daily problem faced by countless numbers of women. I found numerous stories online about how rapes and harassment tend to go unreported in Turkey because going to the police can be more traumatic. In one case, a woman named Ezgi actually took her harasser to the police station only to be told the cops couldn’t do anything. One cop even mentioned that “of course you’ll get groped on a bus,” that since she was a doctor, she was making enough money to just drive her own car to work. Many judges continue to give men reduced sentences, blaming the victims for “provoking” their attackers. One 2018 survey on Turkish youth revealed that 40% of Turkey’s young population believe it’s acceptable to slap a woman “when necessary” – reasons including: speaking to another man, refusing to have sex with her husband, burning food on the stove, and neglecting the children. It’s sickening.

Istanbul protest against murder of Ozgecan Aslan

Istanbul protest on February 14, 2015, against the murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

I learned that there’s also a Turkish #metoo movement under the hashtag #sendeanlat (Turkish for “tell your story, too) on twitter! This Turkish anti-harassment campaign was inspired after the brutal murder of 20-year-old Turkish psychology student who tried to fight off her rapist. Thousands of women have shared their stories about survival with over 800,000 tweets using the hashtag.

Moreover, there’s a group I love that calls itself the “Campus Witches.” These women have chapters in 20 different Turkish universities dedicated to fighting the abuse through organizing free self-defense courses and mobilizing support.

Advice to Women Visiting Istanbul:

-Go with a friend or a tour group. Don’t go alone.

-Don’t feel obliged to answer ANY personal questions. Even better, don’t reply to anyone, not even with a hello.

-Don’t smile or look directly into the eyes of any guys unless you want them to approach you.

-Cover your hair when out alone. I found I was treated much differently, with more respect when I did this.

*Helpful Phrases in Turkish:

*These are taken from the Hollaback!, a website made by female activists trying to raise global awareness of street harassment

– Beni elledi (“He touched me”)

– Çekil (“Get away from me” pronounced as chekil)

–  Ayıp (“Shame!” a strong indictment in Turkish, pronounced asayeup)

– Senin hiç kız kardeşin yok mu?? (“Don’t you have any sisters?”)

– Neden beni taciz ediyorsun? (“Why do you molest me?” which can be said to alert bystanders)

Polisi arayacağım (“I’m going to call the cops”). If you feel safe enough to express your anger, you can say Seni pislik (“You are a jerk”)

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