This post was written as part of the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network, which connects Hoyas all over the world and encourages conversation about religion, culture, politics, and society in different countries. For my first post for JYAN, see here.
It is also not Princess, Angel, Sweetie, or Babyface. This may seem a bit obvious, but I mention it because during the week I spent in Istanbul during my fall break, these are all things I was called by various men. Many came up more than once, some shouted at me by eager salesmen at the bazaars, others dropped quietly into conversation as the speaker tried to make a sale, and still more simply thrown in my direction by random men on the street.
This was not, of course, directly solely at me. My conversations with the women at my hostel and my friend who is studying in Istanbul made it clear that all women are the target of this weird mix between catcalling and aggressive marketing. It is, in short, normal.
That isn’t comforting to me, given that on my first full day in Istanbul I was followed by a complete stranger who walked just behind me, whispering that I was beautiful and asking me where I was from. And when I say “followed” I mean that he trailed me through a busy crowd, halfway across a bridge, down some stairs, across the passageway under said bridge, and most of the way back up the stairs—a good five minutes, if not more, when I was clearly trying to get away from him. The scenario ended, for the curious readers, with him trying to grab my butt and then running away.
So the spice merchant who told me he would make me a deal “because you’re so beautiful” will have to forgive me if I didn’t take too kindly to his flattery. I’m not going to waste space here explaining why catcalling is bad—that’s what the internet is for—but I will mention that even when there’s another motive behind it, like trying to sell something, talking down to women and reducing them to their appearance is neither respectful nor exceptionally productive. It serves to reinforce a view of the world in which women are public property, available to be ogled, yelled at, or worse.
Of course, this is not by any means a strictly Turkish phenomenon. Washington DC, along with the rest of the United States, is not free of blame, nor is France. I’ve been catcalled and hit on in Lyon more times than I care to count, in broad daylight and at night, alone and with friends. One of my fellow JYAN bloggers, Brigit Goebelbecker, recently wrote about her own experiences in Brazil. Aisha Babalakin, too, has blogged about being harassed in Jordan. Unwanted attention is a phenomenon experienced by women around the world.
Which is why it’s difficult to tie it to any particular cultural influence. Initially, I thought that perhaps the increased number of catcalls I heard in Lyon was an unfortunate result of France’s looser attitude toward sex, but that logic fell flat once I tried to apply it across the globe. And while some might turn to religious explanations, that makes just as little sense when you consider the wide variety of religions and levels of religiosity talked about on the JYAN website alone.
I’m usually one who wants to find the root causes of things, but what’s a girl to do when the roots are far-reaching and hard to distinguish? If we set aside the tangled web of reasons why it seems to be okay to objectify, infantilize, or otherwise demean women, we can start looking at the issue itself and how to solve it.
Solving the problem also requires stepping back from trying to figure out who is most to blame. Here I’m drawn to Kat Kelley’s blog post, in which she quotes Mark 7:5: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” I’m more inclined to quote something I’ve been exposed to far more often than the Bible: “Secure your own mask before helping others.” We are in no position to change the world if we can’t change ourselves.
And this means speaking up—or, in some instances, staying quiet. Whether American, French, or Turkish, we can make the effort not only to not catcall but to question those around us who do. Right now, this kind of behavior is socially acceptable, and we can’t expect it to stop until it becomes otherwise.
And for heaven’s sake, if you need to get the attention of a woman you don’t know, “ma’am” or “miss” will do just fine.