Women act against harassers, take back İstanbul’s streets
GRAPHIC: Yunus Emre Hatunoğlu
Well-known attorney Hicran Akkaya Şenol was enjoying her morning jog in İstanbul’s Şişli district earlier this week when she said she felt someone grab her. Shocked, Şenol turned to her teenage harasser, who immediately took off.
So far Şenol’s story sounds like those of more than 90 percent of women worldwide, according to figures by Stop Street Harassment, who have experienced street harassment by age 19.
In Turkey alone, the Independent Communication Network (Bianet) stated a total of 95 women reported being harassed by men since the start of this year. The actual figure, legal experts and activists agree, is much higher because most cases go unreported.
While another story of street harassment in İstanbul should then come as no surprise, what may is Şenol’s response.
After her harasser fled, Şenol began to chase him, phoning the police and enlisting the help of passers-by along the way. Nearly 20 minutes and two kilometers later, the police arrived and apprehended the 17-year-old.
While keeping her distance out of fear he was carrying a weapon, Şenol said she could not let her predator get away and possibly harass someone else.
“Many women are harassed. They keep quiet either out of shame or disgrace. This also encourages perverts and molesters,” said Şenol, advising women to take action in such incidents.
Nearly every major news organization covered Şenol’s bold and successful response, which activists and experts roundly praised as “courageous.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” psychologist İnci Tebiş said when she learned the news.
But whether out of misplaced shame, sheer shock or fear for their safety, countless women in Turkey and around the world struggle with how to handle street harassment.
So should the millions of women who suffer from street harassment take a note from Şenol and chase their attackers? Activists and experts say, not necessarily.
“There is no formula,” Tebiş said. “While this is an exceptional example of what to do, she [Senol] was also in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”
“I don’t think everyone should do this,” said anti-street-harassment group Hollaback! Istanbul Director Kacie Kocher of Senol’s daring but risky response to her harasser. “Responding to harassers can be positive in some instances and invoke violence in others. We tell people to trust their instincts because that will save you much more than having a great comeback.”
The situation and, therefore, the appropriate response also differ from country to country and culture to culture.
“In some places, responding just encourages them [harassers] and a reaction shows them you want more attention. That was my experience in Morocco,” Kocher said. “In Turkey, though, a reaction can silence the harasser because public shame is a driving force here. Speaking up, especially loud enough for others to hear, can be a deterrent in Turkey.”
The better informed people are of their options in responding to street harassment, the better people can determine which fits them and the situation best.
Responding to harassment 101
Most activists in İstanbul do encourage responding in the moment that the harassment takes place, if possible.
“We must absolutely speak up. Yell, even. We must do everything we can to stop and humiliate those who engage in street harassment,” Selen Doğan, coordinator of women’s rights group Uçan Süpürge’s (Flying Broom), said.
“Responding to harassers is about having the courage to raise your voice against injustice,” Kocher said. “We are looking into different ways to encourage the community to speak up, which have included our story-sharing events and university campus visits.”
If victims do choose to respond, Kocher advises they speak firmly and calmly without resorting to profane language because bystanders tend to be less sympathetic and it could lead the harasser to respond with violence.
“If you are harassed and want to respond, communicate a behavior, emotion and action,” Tebiş said. “For example, ‘I feel uncomfortable when you touch me; please stop’ can be very powerful.”
Tebiş deals with street harassment, which can be humiliating and traumatizing, with humor. Once she posed and asked, “Is this angle better?” while a gaggle of young guys tried to secretly sneak a photo of her on the bus. Another time she thanked a harasser who grabbed her chest for a free breast examination.
“It’s therapeutic for me,” she said. “And the harassers always stop. Immediately. But it took me a long time to be able to respond this way.”
Kocher said she also has heard positive stories in İstanbul of victims responding, getting help from others in a crowded bus and having the police make the harasser apologize.
“Responding in the moment or even by submitting a story on our website later on can be extremely empowering,” Kocher said.
Before responding to street harassers, women must also feel confident they will receive support from those around them.
Tebiş suggests victims of street harassment pick out one bystander and seek out his or her help. “If not, we sometimes see the bystander effect, or a bunch of people sitting around waiting for someone else to do something,” she said.
To help bystanders intervene when they witness street harassment and to document their success online using website and smart phone apps, Hollaback! Istanbul has teamed up with award-winning bystander program Green Dot.
The greatest response to the campaign has come from Turkish men, which Kocher said is important because they “have been habitually uninterested or barred from feminist issues. We have been working with men to include them in the discussion of the community’s role in stopping street harassment, and they have come up with some interesting approaches for how to expand our movement.”
While not a ready-made response for any and all cases of harassment, activists agree Şenol’s and others’ success stories can be sources of empowerment for the many women who experience street harassment in Turkey and around the world.
“I think the most important part of this story is that she [Şenol] realized this is a habitual problem,” Kocher said. “She knew that although she might be hurt, she couldn’t live in a world where he could treat people this way. She stepped up. We all need to step up. These are not just isolated incidents; these are daily threats, traumas, and injustices, and we can stop it.”