Six months ago, I unintentionally jumped on board the global movement against street harassment. Agreeing to a meager 10 hours of work (Maximum!) a week, I started Hollaback! Istanbul. Rather quickly I realized I was in way over my head. As a Texas native living in Turkey, I speak beginner Turkish and have no family or historical relations with Turkey—yet, here I was starting a branch of an international NGO on street harassment in Turkish, localizing a global movement to Turkish culture.
My immediate plan, after promptly freaking out about these major roadblocks, was to talk to everyone I knew, even people I didn’t know. In all seriousness, anyone who would listen to me. My questions: Would a blog mapping street harassment violations work in Istanbul? Is street harassment a major problem? How do police respond to street harassment? Truth be told, up until that point, I’d had very little harassment in Istanbul. However, from the dozens of people I talked to, I received overwhelming affirmation and excitement: Istanbul needs THIS approach to street harassment.
A side note: Hollaback began in 2005 as a blog in NYC to map street harassment and give victims a voice against harassers. Hollaback today: this model is expanding to 50 cities. I wanted to be a part of it immediately after finding its website, feeling inspired by the energy and activism behind it. Due to Turkish law, we’ve created the NGO Canımız Sokakta, which works on projects with the vast Hollaback network.1
Although many don’t realize it, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world and is extremely diverse in culture, ideology, and religion. Istanbul’s many neighborhoods are insulated villages and still coexist and create a larger city. Thus, addressing street harassment in Istanbul is much like addressing street harassment in a dozen different communities full of competing concerns and unique social norms. Even more complicating, the backdrop to this diversity is an inexhaustible conservative environment opine that women should be kept in the house to avoid harassment2 and thirteen-year-old girls have ‘consensual’ intercourse with dozens of politically powerful men.3 Gender equality is far behind much of the progress Turkey has made in other areas such as health, the economy, and education. To combat such pervasive and institutionalized discrimination, the Canimiz Sokakta team created a bilingual Hollaback website. Less than three months with an active site, we have received 55 stories and over 4,000 visitors. Victims and supporters can receive resources on our website, and our 1,000 total followers are active on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. This is only the beginning.
For cultures similar to Turkish culture, fostering an online presence is not enough. We’re using social media as a platform for our cause and to reach out to a diverse community, but localizing the movement in Istanbul also requires real world interaction. Self-defense classes, university panels, story sharing events—this is where change happens, at the community level. In our experience, the number of Twitter follows doesn’t necessarily reflect an impact on the community; thus finding that balance where social media is the means and not the end is important for young activists. And especially in patriarchal, male dominated dialectic, social media is a medium to initiate egalitarian discourse and then expand it past virtual perimeters. Pragmatism in that transition is the next step for young feminist social entrepreneurs and activists.
The Internet is the amplifier social change has been waiting for. We are more capable of sharing our stories, interacting with others of diverse opinions, and mobilizing for a cause than ever before. Throughout my education, I remember learning history, which until now has been the stories of rich, dead, white men. No longer; young activists of all genders, races, and classes have take to the internet, and are more represented online than most any other demographics in society, at a time when society needs change. This change will not be top-down. Make no mistake, there will be changes, and they won’t be top-down. Rather it will come from us, in the shape of blogs, virtual petitions, and online organizing. We are the leaders of the change we have been looking for, and the Internet is the megaphone in our hands.
2 Armutcu, Emel. “Turkish Mayor Advises Women to Stay Home to Avoid Harassment,” Hurriyet Daily News, 25 May 2011.
3 “Court Ruling of ‘Consent’ Inflicts Most Hurt on Child Rape Victim,” Today’s Zaman. 3 November 2011.
*Kacie Lyn Kocher is a 24-year-old American living in Istanbul. She’s a foodie, locavore, and wino, despite/maybe because of the fact that her first word was”McDonalds”. She stumbled into an active role in the anti-street harassment movement this past spring, and is incredibly anxious to see and be *a part* of what’s next. As Founder and Director of Canimiz Sokakta (a member of Hollaback), she works with a team of over a dozen volunteers to bring awareness to the blatant street harassment that many face in Istanbul. For more information, check us out at canimizsokakta.com.