Is harassment cultural?

ILLUSTRATION: ORHAN NALIN

April 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:49:00

As yabancı, part of the program is respecting Turkish culture. For the most part, in fact, we are here for that very reason. We are interested in and respectful of Islam, Turkish traditions and beliefs, the language, the architecture, the pastimes and we love the delicious food.

 Personally, I am thrilled every time by the exciting hustle and bustle of the marketplace or the peaceful calm and beauty inside a mosque. With this in mind, I want to respectfully move forward with some ideas that I wrote about a few weeks back, including street harassment -- something that should not be confused as “cultural.”

I think there are a lot of good arguments for why street harassment is never, ever acceptable. To start, it is extremely disrespectful. Ask any woman who has been harassed if she found the experience “flattering.” Likely she felt violated and humiliated. You have probably heard harassers justify their behavior by claiming that women would not dress to provoke men if they did not want negative attention. This is wrong-headed misogyny, but it fits insidiously inside a “logic of harassment” that blames the victim and keeps women walking on eggshells, hoping to avoid provoking someone with a dangerous level of entitlement.

Unfortunately, many who confidently claim to wisely blend in with the “local culture” will tell you that harassment is the price paid for disrespecting Turkey’s traditional dress code for women. “If you just cover up a bit more, you won’t face any of those problems.” There are several things wrong with this argument. First, it is just not true. Perhaps surprisingly, harassment doesn’t discriminate based on age, location or clothing as much as we think. Women dressed in very modest clothing get harassed all the time. Check out the website www.gotstared.at, and read the stories and look at the map on http://istanbul-en.ihollaback.org/. Or just ask some women to share their experiences with you.

Also, by the logic of harassment, big plates make people fat, cars make people drive drunk and pens cause spelling errors -- obvious fallacies. In other words, only we are accountable for our actions. Finally, you have probably noticed that Turkish women, raised in this cultural climate, do not dress uniformly; harassment is a byproduct of sexism, not culture.

The logic of harassment also begs the question: Who has the right to tell anyone else how to dress? Of course clothing is influenced by culture and religion. But how would any human presume to arbitrate God’s standards or cultural mandates and dispense justice as he saw fit in the form of harassment? It’s one thing to disapprove of shorts, but it is something else to violate a woman’s personal space in public. Certainly that behavior is not condoned by God. If you find something offensive, modestly look away. This is what Islam dictates for Muslims, to “lower their gaze,” as clearly explained in the Qur’an.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is no doubt that cultural standards have been in place for centuries, and these standards include a dress codes. But cultural exchange should be a two-way street, paved with respect for differences. If I ever saw Turks being harassed in America I would speak up and defend them. They should not be punished for their differences. It all comes down to this: You cannot control others, nor should you strive to; you only control how you react to them. In a perfect world, every difference would be seen as an opportunity for learning.

Third, on what grounds is harassment part of traditional Turkish culture? “Street harassment is a byproduct of Turkey’s conservative society” is an argument I’ve often heard. How silly does that sound when written out? Picture the bastion of centuries of Turkish religious and cultural traditions: the mosque. Could you imagine someone being harassed in a mosque? Is harassment in line with Turkish values of humility, respect, kindness and forgiveness? Turkey has stunningly beautiful traditions. Passing off such inexcusable behavior as “cultural” is shameful and transparent. Let us not fool ourselves into imagining sexism as a cultural tradition -- that is one of the most powerful tools in the tool belt of the logic of harassment. Yes, Turkey is a patriarchal society. No, this is not license to excuse, explain and ignore sexism and harassment.

Finally, even if it were true that street harassment is just part of Turkey’s conservative culture, since when do wise people accept what they are given at face value because they have been told this is just the way things are? I offer two words that have recently revolutionized our understanding of the world, to not-so-subtly point out the value of questioning our “unchangeable realities”: Arab Spring.

But, as I wrote, those are arguments. Leaving this conversation here would be short-sighted. A much better strategy is to find our common ground. The most important things to remember to this end are our shared values and that the logic of harassment is a problem all around the world. Misogyny is a global social disease that no country has “solved.” It’s not a competition, a bragging contest or a zero-sum system; we’re in this together. A world without sexism and harassment will be a rising tide that lifts all boats, all countries, all genders and all people.

Nothing I write will magically end sexism (remember, not the same as Turkish culture)! And nothing will make yabancı dress radically different. There is a middle ground here. Let’s move forward with respect, wisdom, tolerance and understanding to find that middle ground. For us yabancı, it’s part of the program.