Lost in Istanbul

07/08/2013 05:44 pm 17:44:06 | Updated Sep 07, 2013

"Either I conquer İstanbul or İstanbul conquers me."--
Fatih Sultan Mehmet

A 33-year-old woman from New York City named Sarai Sierra went on a solo trip to Turkey to practice her hobby of photography and to take photos of the wonderful city of İstanbul. It was her first trip outside of the U.S.. She was going to fly back home on Jan. 22, but she never showed up for her flight. Then, she was the highest priority of the missing persons unit of the Turkish National Police Department for a while.

When I first heard Sierra's story, my initial reaction was to hope she hadn't been raped and killed because of an article I had read on Jan. 14 on the website of the Washington Post -- titled "In Istanbul, street harassment is a constant" -- that was written by American female journalist Alyson Neel, who has lived in İstanbul for two years. It is a common belief that the backstreets of İstanbul are not a safe place for women, especially if they are tourists.

Then I asked a simple a question on Facebook and Twitter: What would you suggest a female friend do if she is planning a solo trip to İstanbul, Turkey?

All my foreign friends who have visited Turkey at least once said that İstanbul is a mellow place. They suggested doing your homework first, paying attention, using common sense, staying in control of one's faculties (i.e., don't get drunk), exercising caution and being wary of bad neighborhoods. They also suggested not going out alone at night and dressing like "any ordinary urban woman" in the summer. These suggestions pretty much apply to any destination.

However, some of my Turkish friends were quite critical. A few asked why I don't ask the same question for someone who would like to visit the U.S. One said that in 40 years she had never experienced any sexual harassment in İstanbul. Most of them said that these kinds of things can happen anywhere in the world and wanted to know why we should discuss this only with regard to Turkey.

Yes, it's unfortunate that when a woman disappears the first thing we think is that she may have been raped and killed. Psychologists say rape is one of the deepest fears felt by every woman. In the female mind, no place is safe and real peace does not exist. She has to protect herself at all times. Sadly, women are sexually harassed everywhere in the world, in any place. Still, we should honestly accept the fact that even though harassment is not an isolated problem, it is more prevalent in some places than others.

In my 17 years in the U.S., I have lived in different neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey and have traveled to many places in these states. Yes, catcalling and hollering happen from time to time -- some losers may even coo at you. However, in the U.S., if a man gropes a woman, it is a felony assault. If the woman presses charges, the man may be sentenced to up to four years in prison in some states. Police would publicly arrest the perpetrator if the victim called for help. It is a discouraging and humiliating experience for misguided men in the U.S.

Nevertheless, in İstanbul, the lines are not always as clear. Anything can happen at any time of day and in any neighborhood. Even though sexual harassment is a widespread and systemic problem in Turkey, women do not have the same safeguards in place to call on to protect themselves. I am not sure how much of the problem is social and how much is about a lack of pertinent legislation.

Turkish law criminalizes sexual harassment as "any act of harassment with sexual intent," and conviction of such a charge can carry a sentence of three months to two years in prison. However, Turkish women are taught to stay silent to keep up appearances. Since our society tends to most often judge the victim and not the perpetrator, many women accept assault and hesitate to speak up so as to protect their reputations.

But it is time we faced the problem. Harassment is simply about power and inequality. Men harass women to humiliate them and prove their manliness. Somehow, women have become a tool for entertainment, and harassment is a way for many men to amuse themselves.

We should admit that this problem affects every part of our society and culture. We must all work on changing the mindset of devaluing women because society will never reach its full potential or achieve dignity if it leaves women to unspeakable discomfort and fear.

We need to speak up and raise awareness publicly and privately that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Governments have to dedicate themselves to improving the safety and welfare of women.

Now you may ask how the topic has come to this point and how it relates to Sarai Sierra. Her situation was delicate, and thank God the Turkish police and media took it very seriously. Her attacker, Ziya Tasali, a homeless man, was found and arrested very quickly. He is in the prison now and persecutors seek life time prison for him. Tasali confessed that he hit her in the head with a rock because he was high from sniffing glue and she didn't let him kiss her. So, unfortunately, Sarai Sierra's stuation was a sexual harassment.

For Arzu Kaya-Uranli click here.

Arzu Kaya-Uranli writes weekly editorial articles for Today's Zaman.