We had just wrapped up at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, drained from taking in all the incredible history exhibited in the museum’s three buildings. The consensus was to take the tram to a spot for lunch, then hop on it again to find a baklava shop we’d heard is amazing. The tram is one of several fantastic methods of public transportation used by what feels like everyone (at the same time) in the city of Istanbul. A seat on the bus, metro, or tram is a highly coveted spot that is not easily attained. In fact, sometimes just getting on any of these vehicles is a nearly impossible feat because they are so crowded. “Maximum Capacity” doesn’t seem to be a concept as firmly held here as it is in the U.S. As we approached the tram, desperately seeking nourishment after an exhausting outing of museum-going, we discovered hoards of other people on the platform who we would soon have to fight for a spot. The tram arrived and its doors opened, the poor passengers inside desperately trying to escape before being trampled by the masses boarding. Amidst this commotion, while trying to edge my way in without elbowing an elderly woman in the face, I felt a hand squeezing my butt. Suffering some sensory overload from the experience of getting on the tram, it took me a few seconds to realize this was happening, and to notice that the hand had not let go. When I did finally realize, I whipped around—no easy task when one has no more than a half-inch radius of personal space around her—and attempted to identify to whom the brazen hand belonged. My friend had witnessed this all go down, and pointed to a short, middle-aged man in a blue dress shirt and grey slacks who was holding a briefcase. He had turned to face the door, but looked over his shoulder a few times at me as I glared at him and shared some choice words I wish I knew how to say in Turkish. Our stop came soon after my futile attempt to give him a piece of my mind, and he was quickly lost in the crowd of passengers exiting.
The incident, his subsequent looks of complete indifference at me as I uselessly berated him, and the absence of a reaction from any of the passengers nearby who’d also watched it all happen brought me to the disturbing realization that what I had just experienced was, in a word, insignificant. I felt violated and uncomfortable in my own skin. The members of our group did their best to console me, through belatedly cursing the perpetrator or sharing their own stories of being publicly groped by strangers. I was overwhelmed with fury, but social etiquette urged me to stifle my anger and attempt to distract myself until I could be alone and reflect.
I never thought I would feel more like a compilation of body parts, assembled solely for the purpose of being assessed, criticized, and used by men, than at a Duke fraternity party—until I came to Turkey. I was warned, of course. Both of my parents effectively told me to put my feminist identity on hold during my time in Turkey, reminding me constantly that my views would not be received well in a country whose deputy prime minister told women they shouldn’t laugh out loud in public. They and many others warned me that life would be different as an American woman in Turkey—especially one who does not look Turkish in the slightest—and I would be expected to adapt. I’m okay with adapting. I want to be challenged. I enjoy exploring beyond my comfort zone. Being transformed against my will into a walking piece of meat for men to invade with their stares and debase with their words, among other things, does not fall into any of those categories. Nor does being expected to accept it as normal.
Throughout my first month and a half here, I have already met several incredibly intelligent, outspoken, headstrong Turkish women whose respective brilliances inspire me. Simultaneously, I have seen how the day-to-day culture of male entitlement, especially as expressed through street harassment, treats these women and all women as disposable objects. My experience on the tram was insignificant—to be expected, even. Because, from my western point of view, if you identify as a woman in Turkey, you automatically forfeit the basic human right of being treated as an equal to someone who identifies as a man.
The realization that the previous sentence requires no “in Turkey” to be true is an incredibly uncomfortable truth to accept. The idea of women as objects—to be owned, to be used, to be disposed of, to be replaced—is certainly not unique to this country. As I mentioned, the most objectified I’ve ever felt prior to coming to Turkey is when in attendance at a frat party at Duke. I have realized how easy it is to sit on the high horse of a westernized perspective and criticize other countries for the inequalities they are enforcing and perpetuating. It is far more unsettling to recognize the fact that, though it may manifest itself in different ways, gender inequality is as much a constant in our society as it is anywhere else. Being violated by a stranger on the tram was a blatant reminder that I am living in a man’s world, a world in which my womanhood renders my rights, my experiences, and my value insignificant.