Shattering the deafening silence of harassment in İstanbul

February 26, 2012, Sunday/ 11:20:00

Texan native and Turkish resident Kacie Kocher remembers being shocked the first time she was harassed 14 months ago in İstanbul.

“I was riding the tram after picking up a package from my mom for Christmas,” Kocher recalled to Sunday’s Zaman. Holding a box and deep in conversation with her boyfriend, Kocher said she felt pressure on her backside as the tram filled with people.

She noticed there was an older man standing behind her, but figuring it was an accident due to the tight space, she tried shifting her weight. His hand was still there. “I freaked out. I was just really shocked,” she said. “Like many women when they’re harassed, I didn’t know what to do,” she repeated over and over again.

After Kocher and her boyfriend switched places, her harasser immediately left. Though some would consider this a close call, Kocher has not forgotten it. “I remember feeling very disgusting for a long time,” said Kocher, shaking her head.

But when she came across the Hollaback! New York website and posted her story in March 2011, Kocher said she felt more than relieved. “Just writing it out was empowering,” she explained.

And that is when she decided to launch Hollaback! Istanbul, Turkey’s chapter of an international proactive movement against street harassment, last April. Kocher is not alone. İstanbul was deemed the most dangerous city in Turkey last month for women in terms of sexual harassment, the Independent Communication Network’s (Bianet) statistics reveal.

In January 2012 alone, 35 women were harassed by males in five provinces across Turkey. Twenty-five of these cases were reported in İstanbul.

But those figures mean very little, experts agree, because most cases of harassment go unreported.

“Ninety-five percent of general crime is never reported. And we know that even fewer victims of sexual crimes come forward,” Human Rights Agenda Association (İHGD) Secretary-General Günal Kurşun told Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview.

In other words, those 35 cases of reported harassment last month make up five percent of the problem.

According to Hollback! İstanbul’s preliminary research, roughly 70 percent of those surveyed reported being harassed at least once a month.

The most common forms of harassment experienced included leering (75 percent), being honked at (60 percent), being whistled at (59 percent), having kissing noises directed at them (48 percent) and being sexually touched or groped (46 percent).

Sexual harassment is not unique to Turkey, experts acknowledge. The sheer number of Hollaback! groups around the world proves harassment is a universal problem. “There were nine countries when we opened Hollaback! Istanbul last April. Now there are 16,” Kocher said.

More than just foreigners

Contrary to common belief, sexual harassment is hardly exclusive to foreigners.

Melek, in a post on Hollaback! Istanbul’s website, wrote she was 15 years old when she was harassed in Kaynarca.

The minibus was full but she boarded anyway. Standing in the back of the crowded vehicle, Melek described how a man standing on her left began to grope her.

Paralyzed by shock and disgust, Melek wanted to say something but could not form the words. Several minutes later, she rushed off the minibus. “I was so happy to get off [the minibus] I laughed,” she explained. But there was nothing funny about what happened. Melek, who is now 28 years old, still lives with the pain. “I will never remain silent again,” she wrote.

Not just for the young

T.V. was punched in the chest by a “short, thickset man” while shopping with a friend on bustling İstiklal Street in İstanbul’s Beyoğlu district.

Falling back onto the table of a nearby café, T.V. struggled to catch her breath and begged the waiters and her friend to run after her attacker. Her friend yelled, but everyone else just stood there. “Then she [T.V.’s friend] and the other waiter explained to me that here in modern, progressive İstanbul there is nothing done about such people, and that if we went to the police, I’d get a lecture about the way I was dressed,” T.V. later wrote on Hollaback! Istanbul’s website. T.V., who had been wearing jeans and a T-shirt, was 60 years old at the time.

Not about sex

Many believe sexual violence and harassment is, as is denoted in the name, about sex. But activists and sociologists argue it is not that simple.

A.G. was wearing old jeans, an oversized sweatshirt and no make-up when she was sexually harassed in Harbiye.

Sitting behind the driver in a near-empty bus, A.G. posted on Hollaback! Istanbul’s site she thought it odd when a man sat beside her. But she could have never foreseen this seemingly harmless stranger would then, little by little, move his body closer to hers until she was pinned against the window.

“The situation went from annoying to terrifying when his hand reached under me. It didn’t matter if I spoke English or Turkish, I was so scared that no words from either language could be formed. I was frozen,” A.G. described.

When the bus rolled to a stop, A.G. seized the opportunity to run to the back of the bus. But her harasser kept his eyes locked on her and followed.

A.G. jumped off at the next stop just before the door closed and hid in the clothes rack of a nearby store. “I was stunned, shaking, terrified he would get off at the next stop and try to come after me,” she wrote.

Two-and-a-half years have since passed, but A.G. still panics when riding buses. “We need to take the sex out of harassment. It’s not about sex. It’s about power and inequality,” Kocher pressed.

Problem is social, not legal

Sexual harassment is a widespread and systemic problem in Turkey, but the law is not the problem, Kurşun told Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview.

Article 105 of the updated Turkish Penal Code (TCK) of 2004 criminalizes sexual harassment, which is defined as “any act of harassment with sexual intent.” A guilty verdict in a sexual harassment case can carry a sentence of three months to two years in prison, which can be increased by half in cases where the harasser’s position had an “undue influence.”

“The bigger problem is that victims of sexual harassment don’t report the crime,” Kurşun said. “Very few cases of sexual harassment make it to court.”

And activists agree. “We are taught to stay silent. Sexual harassment is unfortunately viewed as the victim’s problem. ‘Was I showing my hair, riding the bus at night, wearing too short of a skirt?’ we are taught to ask ourselves. But these are all just excuses,” said Kocher, describing how victims learn to internalize the problem.

Nothing anyone could wear or do justifies harassment, activists say.

Women’s rights activist Pınar İlkkaracan told Sunday’s Zaman the problem of sexual harassment in Turkey, as is the case with violence against women, is cultural. “Blaming the victim is a sign that sexual harassment is not taken seriously here,” İlkkaracan said.

Even İlkkaracan, included in Newsweek and the Daily Beast’s 2011 list of 150 Women Who Shake the World, said it took her a long time to shout back at harassers. “Women are ashamed. We tend not to say anything. But this makes it worse … and more acceptable. I learned to shout back,” she said.

Most of the time, İlkkaracan stressed, harassers run away when they are confronted. She recalled one time, however, when her harasser shouted back. “I was with my sister in Taksim when this guy reached out and touched me. I yelled, of course. And then he shouted back,” said İlkkaracan, laughing.

Determined to not back down, the renowned women’s rights activist slapped her harasser. “He was trying to intimidate me. He was in shock when I slapped him,” she said. “We all definitely need to shout back.”

But Kocher added it is not just up to the victims to end harassment. “It’s one of the worst feelings when you finally do speak up and no one around you helps you. It makes you not want to speak up,” Kocher said.

Bystanders of sexual harassment also need to speak up when they see someone being harassed.

A man by the name of O.N., who said he has witnessed “all kinds of harassment” in the 40 years he has lived in Turkey, posted on Hollaback! Istanbul that he watched a man put a woman in a choke-hold in Taksim.

Noticing none of the other men were doing anything, O.N. got in a shouting match with the harasser and threatened to call the police until he let the woman go.

“When I see a girl getting touched while on a bus, I ask her -- rather loudly -- if she is uncomfortable and then I offer my seat while staring the offender down. The harasser generally squirms away at that point,” O.N. posted.

Hollaback! Istanbul gives those who have been harassed or have witnessed harassment a voice and the opportunity to break the silence.

“Maybe you didn’t respond in the moment. But you can still ‘holla back’ by posting your story on our website and know that an entire community is there for you,” Kocher said.

It takes an entire community to put a stop to harassment, experts and activists agree. “And that is what we are trying to create -- a community. I encourage everyone to take two minutes to share your story. Because we all have one,” Kocher said.

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