The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Istanbul, street harassment is a constant

An Indian girl stands as Lady Justice at a candlelight vigil Sunday in New Delhi that was stopped by police. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

ISTANBUL — A 29-year-old woman was gang-raped by seven men after boarding a bus on Friday night in Punjab, India. Police arrested six suspects, including the bus driver, on Sunday.

The violence occurred only four weeks after the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in New Delhi started discussions about rape and culture in India and elsewhere. But even that focus is too narrow.

Most of what I know about gender inequality I’ve learned on the streets of Istanbul, my home for the past two years. My first lesson wasn’t an easy one.

While waiting at my bus stop one spring morning in 2011, I watched as a man assaulted a woman in the middle of the street, apparently unfazed by the throng of witnesses mere yards away. When I tried to intervene, the man swiped at me with a knife, and were it not for another bystander who pulled me back, he might well have made contact.

I was shaken and shocked — not only by the brazenness of the crime but also by the indifference of onlookers and the refusal of the police to get involved in a “private matter.” Though I tried, I never found out what became of the perpetrator or the woman he attacked.

Turkey has made important progress in advancing women’s rights in the past 20 years, but it remains a socially conservative country where violence against women is a major problem.

According to a 2009 survey by Hacettepe University, 42 percent of women in Turkey have been physically or sexually abused at some point in their lives.

A survey last year by Yılmaz Esmer of Bahçeşehir University explains a lot: Esmer found that 32 percent of respondents, including 29 percent of women, said some women deserve to be beaten. What’s more, 64 percent of those surveyed said a woman should obey her husband, and 60 percent said employers should give priority to men over women when hiring.

As a reporter with a local newspaper here, I’ve learned from Turkish women about the challenges they confront on a daily basis, from child marriage and “honor” killings to unequal pay and the public sector ban on the headscarf.

Not a single day goes by that I am not leered at, growled at, spit on, stalked or called a “fuhus” (prostitute). A couple of months ago, I was assaulted by a group of teenage boys 20 feet from my front door.

Though I’ve never been raped, I am violated every day by strangers on the street. And I am merely one of millions of women who endure sexual harassment and assault in public spaces from Cairo to Istanbul to New York, the birthplace of the international anti-street harassment movement Hollaback!.

In India, street harassment is called “Eve-teasing,” implying that women are at least partly responsible for perpetrators’ actions. But this shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to us in the West, where at least some of us still ask what assault victims were wearing at the time and believe that harassment inspires weight loss.

We won’t put a stop to violence until we change the way we think about gender. And while we’re on the subject of rape, we also need to talk about forms of sexual violence that may not be as lethal but that grow out of the same mindset.

Alyson Neel is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter at @AlysonNeel.