Istanbul women stand up to harassment
Women in Istanbul are working to raise awareness and bring about legal changes to combat widespread sexual harassment in public places.
By Anna Wood for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 21/08/12
"Our Istanbul has a quite awful tradition: men jeering at the Muslim women they come across on the ferryboat, on the bridge, at the market, on the street and in the park. The penal code is insufficient on this topic."
Women on the streets of Istanbul report of regular sexual harassment. [Reuters]
Many women report of being harassed or groped on crowded public transportation. [Reuters]
Students at Fatih University attend a campus safety panel organised by Hollaback! [Hollaback!]
These observations come not from a recent political speech or opinion piece in a Turkish newspaper, but rather from the memoirs of a famous official of the Ottoman Empire, Cemal Pasha, years before the founding of today's Republic of Turkey.
A hundred years later his observations still resonate with the women of Istanbul, Muslim and otherwise, who face street harassment on a regular basis.
At times, the harassment is not much more than a lewd sound effect or a lascivious song lyric that follows in the footsteps of a passing woman. Sometimes it takes the form of whistling, catcalling, intentionally audible commentary on a woman's body or outfit, or demeaning slurs.
But not infrequently, the men who engage in this sort of public harassment don't stop with verbal insults, and begin following their target, matching the woman's pace and keeping close enough to make her aware of their presence.
In the worst of circumstances, verbal harassment opens doors to physical harassment. Women are grabbed at and groped by men on thoroughfares and side streets, in underpasses and on public transportation, where crowded cars strike some perpetrators as an opportunity for full-body contact.
Hollaback! Istanbul, the local branch of the international anti-street harassment organisation, provides vocal public condemnation of the harassment experienced by women in Istanbul.
Kacie Lyn Kocher, director of Hollaback! Istanbul, told SES Türkiye that according to the most recent survey the organisation conducted among women in Istanbul, "leering was the most common form of harassment according to 75 percent, with honking (60 percent), whistling (59 percent), and kissing noises (48 percent) just behind that. We see more non-physical types of harassment as the norm, but we still see physical harassment pretty often as well: 46 percent of respondents thought both sexist comments and sexual touching/groping were very common types of harassment."
The regularity of harassment in this city has many potential causes, prominent among them the tremendous influx of migrants from all over the country and abroad, rapid urbanization and the perceived anonymity that comes with living in Europe's most populous city.
Victims of harassment in Istanbul have no particular profile. It is a type of abuse that affects the young and the old, the religiously and modernly attired, locals and foreigners alike.
The threat of harassment, Kocher says, causes many women to modify their own behavior in an attempt to attract less notice or appear less of a target, and report using tactics like "keeping your eyes on the floor, never smiling, not showing emotion, changing out of an outfit you want to wear because it could be the excuse someone needs to grab you."
This sort of preventative action is not always effective, however.
"What most women know though is that nothing they do can really change the fact that some men will grab them in the streets or say nasty things to them while they commute to work," Kocher told SES Türkiye. "We try to open up that dialogue to make sure women know that street harassment isn't about clothes, or the time of day, or sex; it's about power."
Public displays of masculine power are visible elsewhere in Istanbul. Men of all ages far more commonly occupy public spaces, and often sit or stand in groups along well-trafficked roads, providing an often unwanted audience to female passers-by.
On an Istanbul street, a woman is far more likely to be commuting from one destination to another, rather than sitting for hours on a park bench, leaning against the walls of buildings lining the street, or simply working in an occupation that keeps them outdoors, such as construction, delivery, or peddling goods.
This can lead to a dynamic of the men occupying the street as their domain and, intentionally or not, turning women into objectified outsiders in their own city.
Nihan Guneli, an Istanbul lawyer who volunteers to help women targeted by harassment and abuse, says that part of the reason the problem is so endemic is that the laws regulating verbal harassment are unclear.
"Even though it doesn't clearly say 'verbal harassment,' there is at least one article in the Turkish Criminal Code titled 'insult'." Guneli told SES Türkiye.
However, that law is meant to protect against slander and demeaning statements, creating a loophole for many leering men.
"As you may see, it is not clear how to use this article for verbal harassment. What if the harasser only says 'good' things? Nothing's clear, and I've never experienced nor ran into such case," Guneli said.
Guneli's advice for those harassed is simple: go to the authorities.
"If anyone is harassed on the street, they should go to the police station, or call 155. The victim should explain the situation and tell the police that he/she wants to file a complaint against the harasser. The police would take the statement down and that's how the legal procedure starts," Guneli said.
From there, however, she admits that things rarely progress in a satisfactory manner. Police have been known to dismiss such complaints because the harasser didn't actually touch the target, because the incident wasn't as serious in their eyes as assault or rape, or because they blame the target for her style of dress or behavior prior to the incident.
"Many women don't report their instances of harassment to the police because they will become frustrated at the response: being told to dress more modestly and not taking the claim seriously," Kocher said.
Maria Molnarova, a Slovakian woman living in Istanbul, was among those who did go to the police to press charges when the abuse progressed beyond the typical gaping and catcalling she encounters daily.
This time, a man had actually followed her into her apartment building and attempted to rape her. Molnarova managed to escape the assault by biting the attacker's hand, losing a tooth in the process, and screaming to alert her neighbors.
At the police station, Molnarova said she was "put through a senseless, hour-long procedure" of irrelevant questions. "I felt harassed even at the police, being asked how the 'man' did it, seeing the policemen's faces as they all pictured it in their mind."
Despite her request, there were no women police officers made available for Molnarova to speak to.
Ultimately, Molnarova said, after pestering her about her residence permit, "They concluded that after all nothing happened, because the perpetrator didn't do the actual rape, did he? Honestly. This is what a police does? Making a victim feel like a criminal?"
To provide reliable legal recourse to those affected by the jeers and unwanted touching, Guneli said there need clear articles in the law about harassment.
In a city that often overlooks more "moderate" instances of harassment, women are often left feeling vulnerable and solely responsible for their own safety.
Hollaback! Istanbul and its growing network of volunteers are the most active force for change on this topic in Istanbul, organising events on college campuses and other outreach programs to let women know that they are not alone and have the legal right to live harassment-free. Campaigns that encourage women to share their experiences and identify the men who have harassed them are also in the works.
"We need to have a major institutional change," Kocher told SES Türkiye. "Without progressive laws and a legal system to support them, we will continue to have a court system dismissive of claims of harassment and a police force which blames the victim."