Friday, April 13, 2012

Breaking the Silence on Street Harassment in Istanbul

Sessizliği Sen Boz,
Break the Silence
about Street Harassment

Street harassment is a human rights issue. It's also a business issue because street harassment costs businesses big money. I haven't felt harassed on the streets of Istanbul. I know, however, that I am not the target demographic as most young people harassed are ages 16-24. I have young friends who have experienced both rude, disgusting comments and groping.

If you think about it, street harassment is probably the number one reason women would not contemplate becoming an "Empty Nest Expat." It's an informal ghettoization of women that keeps them home: whether it be in their actual dwelling, their city, or their country because exploring their world looks too scary.

While fear of harassment has not kept me from exploring my world, street harassment still effects my spending decisions, which is why I emphasize the business consequences of street harassment in this post.

In 2011, I wanted to go to a New Year's Eve party at a friend's flat in the central Taksim area of Istanbul. When my Turkish male friends heard this, they resoundingly said, "you absolutely must not go." Why?

They said, "on New Year's Eve all the village yokels come into Istanbul. They've never seen a foreigner, they are drinking, they assume all sorts of things, and our news the next morning is filled with foreigners who were treated inappropriately on New Year's Eve because of this. Your smiling foreign face would be misunderstood by villagers."

So two hours before I was to leave, I made the decision to stay home and miss my friend's party. Between taxis and hostess gifts of wine and such, the amount I would have spent that night had I gone adds up to about $100. I am just one woman. Think of that decision multiplied by thousands of women. It becomes very easy to see what street harassment costs an economy.

In many ways, Istanbul is benefitting because street harassment is so much worse in other places. One of my friends recently moved here to Istanbul from Cairo. My friend, a highly educated and successful Arab author, said after living in Cairo for two years that it feels completely lawless. She would never move about Cairo proper using a regular taxi. It had to be her regularly-used taxi service, because a woman couldn't even trust licensed cabs in Cairo to keep her safe.

Another story of Cairo street harassment that stunned me comes from one of my favorite blog writers on Islamic spirituality. What are the business implications for a country like Egypt with so little control of its own streets?

For starters, a lot less tourists. At one time, Turkish and Egyptian populations and economies were roughly equal. But now, Turkey receives more than double the tourists Egypt does even though Egypt has the sphyinx and the pyramids and the Nile to offer.

There's a website called Hollaback! that works to document street harassment all over the world so that women know places to avoid within a city. It is also localized to document cases within Istanbul itself so people can see where most harassment occurs.

Avoiding places is a 20th century solution. Women won't settle for that anymore. Women deserve, demand, and will work for safe streets all around the world. We are half of the world's population. We aren't going to remain silent anymore.

Tourist and retail business people should appreciate and fund activists like the Istanbul Hollaback! team because they are working to create an environment safe for people and frankly, local businesses, to thrive.

Click on my title to check out the Istanbul Hollaback! website. You can share your story, check the map of harassment locations, and learn Turkish to help defend yourself. You can also learn how you can be a badass bystander who helps diffuse situations!

It's exciting to see tools like this develop to help women go out and explore their world. We didn't have something like this when I was in my twenties. A worldwide network of Hollaback websites helps give women courage. Set sail, explore, see parts unknown! Don't let street harassment keep you from exploring beyond your street, your city, or your country just like anybody else.


Eurobubba said...

I remember which countries to avoid for fear of harassment being a constant topic among the women backpackers back when I was doing the youth hostel circuit (far too many years ago). Kudos to the folks behind Hollaback for raising awareness, though there's clearly a need for much more action. And three cheers to the brave women who refuse to be intimidated! said...

Karen - well done for raising this. As you rightly say, it is an economic issue as the sexual harassment of women will sooner or later, seriously damage the tourist industry in Turkey which is an increasing mainstay of its economy. It also illustrates the complete absence of so-called Islamic values amongst much of the Turkish male population. What Islam supposedly teaches is at total odds to everyday practice.

Karen said...

Thanks Michael and Ricky, for your support on this issue. Good men, and their constant vocalized support for the right way, make a huge difference! Thanks for caring.

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