When I landed in Turkey in August 2018, I somewhat knew what to expect. I had done my pre-travel research. I had sent numerous questions to Hubs, who was already on location, and he relayed them to his female colleagues (based in Ankara). Plus, the year before, I had an in-depth conversation with M. about her trip there. I had a good idea of what to expect.
I've experienced Turkey both as a solo traveller and as a woman accompanied by a man. And the two experiences were drastically different.
As I moved from one section of the Grand Bazar to another, I noticed that men outnumbered women, whether it be vendors or patrons. And I was one of the very few women who were walking on their own. I guess that made me an easy target.
For every couple of vendors who asked me to step into their store, there was a random guy who hurled words my way. I wished that I could just go about my business without the attention, but I didn't feel unsafe. Their language and tone were not disrespectful. No one followed me or tried to touch me. My not responding didn't upset them. The compliments never turned to vitriol. It felt as though they weren't even expecting an answer. I felt safe enough to engage a couple of times.
Keep in mind that engaging men who catcall may not be the safest thing to do. I chose to engage them because I didn't feel threatened. In situations like this, exercise caution and follow your instincts.
Some were inquisitive: "America?" I'd reply "No, Canada" without slowing down. And I'd see the surprise in their eyes. Was it because I answered? Was it because I said I was travelling from Canada?
Others tried to slide in a compliment. "Why are you so attractive?" To that I replied "Ask God." "Which one?", he said. By the time I said "the one you serve" I already had my back to him.
When I explained those encounters to a colleague, she said that she would be mortified. She also mentioned that she had never been catcalled. A grown woman. The luckiest woman I know! If you have never seen a group of men and braced yourself for the "eps! Ti pitit!" or "Hey ma!" and for the reaction that your answer or your silence may trigger, you are one lucky woman!
From a very young age, the adults in my life made sure to prepare me the best they could. Don't make eye contact. Don't answer. If you must answer, remain polite. Cross the street. Avoid certain streets. Anything to make sure that I'd go from point A to point B with the least amount of frustration and with minimal risk. As I became older, I came to learn that none of these tactics are fully effective.
But I digress...
When Hubs joined me in Istanbul, I suddenly became invisible. Looks didn't linger. Words were not hurled at me in passing. I was, erm, spoken for, claimed, protected.
Vendors no longer spoke to me directly. In a jewelry store, the owner would follow my gaze. He'd then point out the items on which my eyes lingered to Hubs, suggesting that he buys them. I'd enquire about a piece of jewelry, and his answer would be directed at Hubs. The representative at the carpet cooperative made a conscious effort to address me. I could see him catch himself looking at Hubs while answering the questions that I asked. He'd turn towards me each time he did so.
The silver lining—because there is one—is that I could sit back, relax and not be the one who haggles. When we travel together, and even at home for that matter, I'm the one who negotiates by default. I'm the one who plays bad cop. But I've only enjoyed that because it was temporary. I don't know how long it would take for me to get used to not having a voice. If I would ever get used to it.