Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mini personal essay- A Night in Istanbul

            When I was studying abroad in Greece last semester, we took a school-run spring break trip to Istanbul. This was not exactly every American parents' ideal place to send their young daughter (my school had 18 female students and one male student) on a vacation. However, our program director, Terry*, took all questions and anxieties at ease and managed to convince almost all the parents in the group to let their child go.
            It is commonly understood that women are not treated as equals in Turkey. Walking the streets of Istanbul, passing beautiful mosques and the famous Grand Bazzar, my female friends I were grabbed at, catcalled, and constantly verbally harassed. By our third day in the city, most of us had decided to wear scarves around our heads in the fashion of a hijab to try to deter the men. Getting back to our hostel became our safe space, particularly as Western women experiencing this culture (most for their first time).
            On our final night in Instanbul, Terry, who had been mysteriously absent at to the majority of the guided trips around the city that week, invited all the students out for a drink at a nearby outdoor bar after dinner. We were escorted there by our TA (who consistently carried the smell of whiskey on his breath), and within the first few minutes of getting seated around the table, it became apparently clear that Terry too was drunk. And I don't just mean enjoyed a glass of wine, but had clearly been drinking rum and coke (his favorite) for hours up until now. He order us a bottle of wine and insisted we stay for the food he was planning to order.
          I was seated directly next to Terry, who was also my philosophy professor at the time, and attempted at light table conversation while simultaneously trying to ignore his intoxicated state. But soon enough, the conversation came to be about the way we female students had been treated by the Turkish men. We all answered politely and dishonestly. The food came on a large, family-style plate. I was hungry (usually am) and helped my self to a healthy sized serving. To this, Terry felt so inclined to turn to be and say, "Atta girl" (in that way so many men do when they see a female who isn't self concious about eating normal portions) and then, "Hey babe why don't you and I go upstairs to my hotel room and make babies that have an appetite like yours."
            My stomach still turns writing that. Comments of that nature continued, while he laughed in between and threw in the occasional, "I'm only kidding," as if he would only dare seriously say those things to me if he had the cultural 'excuse' as Turkish men do. He moved his attention down the line to a redhead two seats down from me. He questioned her sexuality, and after politely declining the question to then be asked again, she answered that she was bisexual. He said he just didn't see her ending up with a woman. Other students sitting around our table heard; it was not a quiet affair. Most looked as if they were trying to pretend there was nothing to hear, making forced conversation with the person next to them and occasionally looking over at us. My friend Kaitlyn*, who was sitting directly to my other side and had zero escape route, admittedly found herself only able to burst into laughter.
            I ended up reporting Terry for sexual harassment to the US study abroad program that accredited his school, and they followed up with an apology "on their behalf" and nothing more. There was never a moment that night in which I felt genuinely unsafe – Terry was an older man in his seventies who I could knock down with a shove of the shoulder – but I felt violated, betrayed and overall very uncomfortable. The entire time I was numb with disbelief, attempting the occasional forced laugh. My silence did not protect me.

*Names have been changed

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