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Will Turkey have its #MeToo moment?

Last June, a young costume dresser complained publicly that she had been sexually harassed by a much-lauded Turkish actor. Talat Bulut, 62, has had scores of leading roles in cinema and TV and was under the impression that his status would make him untouchable. For once, fame and notoriety were not enough to avoid being named and shamed.

“I am only 19-years-old and this is something that many women of my age are subject to,” said Özge Ş, publicly announcing that she would not remain silent and would sue the actor. “I may not obtain any result through legal action either, but I will at least have a clear conscience for saying [what he did] everywhere so that no one stays silent if the same happens to them.”

Her statement was important for two reasons. First, she recognised that she was not alone. Second, she stressed that if women don’t break their silence on sexual harassment, it’s because they are afraid. This fear stems from a potential economic exclusion and the possibility that women themselves – and not the harasser – will end up being blamed.

If not a breakthrough, this case did set a precedent as both the producer and director of the show Yasak Elma (“Forbidden Fruit”), backed the young costume dresser. Social media rang out with support for the woman who made the revelations, a distinct change from the “that artist could never have done something like this” when similar sexual abuse accusations had surfaced in the past. Many announced that they would follow up the case which, maybe for the first time in Turkey prompted hope among feminists that the era of harassment and misogyny, at least in the arts, was at an end.

Yet, despite this outpouring of genuine outrage, Turkey is still far from having its own #MeToo moment.

A campaign in the same vein of #MeToo actually did take place in Turkey and not that long ago. In February 2015, Özgecan Aslan, a university student in the city of Tarsus, was killed while resisting an attempt of rape committed by the minibus driver taking her home from campus. The murder prompted a huge outcry and women took to social media to share their own experience of abuse and harassment under the hashtag #sendeanlat (“Say it too”).

This campaign did have tremendous impact as a huge number of women went public to reveal that they too had been victims of sexual violence. Hundreds of thousands joined demonstrations in dozens of cities. However, very few of these revelations named the culprit. Even today it is not easy for a woman to “point the finger” at the assailants – because of the shame they might bring upon their families, the fear of being accused of provoking the aggressor with the clothes they wore, and simply not being believed.

93 percent of women experienced some form of sexual harassment

The most basic social gender issues still remain unsolved in Turkey. Harassment, rape and the culture of silence remain widespread. The 16-years – and still counting – rule of Islamic conservative government has taken a toll on women’s freedoms and conditions continue to get worse. According to data provided by the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, 409 women were murdered in 2017, 387 children were sexually abused and 332 women were subject to sexual violence. Sociologist Zeynep Banu Dalaman, the director of the Center for Social Gender and Women at the University of Altınbaş, reports in her research that 41 percent of women living in Turkey have been subject to sexual attack at least once in their lives while 93 percent of women were harassed. These numbers are enough to show the gravity of the situation.

As elsewhere, entertainment and arts in Turkey is a patriarchal industry. Cinema, theatre, music and literature are not only mostly ruled by men, but are also breeding grounds for a culture that normalizes harassment through jokes and other daily, trivial practices. Because the culture of harassment is coupled with a culture of silence, women (and sometimes men) who are its victims, struggle to protest.

That these circles are ruled by men considered political dissenters, socialists and leftists only compounds the problem. Indeed, for many women, harassment comes from a man who is successful in his job, with whom they have friends in common, who is respected by everyone, and whose political views are close to her own.

I have my own story to tell. It happened five years ago, when I started to work as an editor in a publishing house. As a feminist and homosexual woman, I thought I knew how to protect myself. I knew how I should react to harassment in the street, in a bus or in any public space and felt far from powerless. But when harassment did occur in the form of an insisting flirting and physical contact by a writer whom I knew, respected and whom everybody loved, I was at loss about what to do. The person in front of me was a good writer, an appreciated friend and a loving father; I thought he would respect the boundary I had set. He didn’t. He persisted with his incessant flirting and physical contact. After insisting for months, he even forcefully tried to kiss me.

What happened next? Well, I couldn’t tell the writer’s name. I left the publishing house for other reasons and I never went to any place where he was, didn’t reply to his messages, walked the other way when I saw him on the street or just ignored him. As he still fails to understand why our friendship ended, I am sure he is not aware that what he did is a crime, namely sexual harassment.

Breaking the culture of silence

This week we have just published a new dossier of articles and interviews on #MeToo at K24, a culture and literature website where I am an editor for almost two years. We decided to work on this topic when my women colleagues and I realized that we had all experienced harassment at least once. We wanted to break the culture of silence. As women who have been subject to harassment, we wanted to see that we were not alone, but we were many and strong.

Many women working in the movie industry, in theatre, in media and publishing contributed by telling their stories. If women are still not ready to point the finger at the harasser, our goal was to tell those predators, echoing Asia Argento’s speech during the closure of Cannes Film Festival, “You know who you are, but, most importantly, we know who you are, and we are not going to allow you to get away with it any longer.” The reaction we received on social media has so far been encouraging.

Will #MeToo finally come to Turkey? Part of me wants to answer yes. There is a reaction against Talat Bulut, the support from within his own industry given to the woman he harassed, the willingness of women to raise their voices together to break the culture of silence and even the reception of our K24 articles showing a glimpse of hope that change will come to Turkey as we hope it will come to the U.S. and in Europe. But we know that there is still a very long way to go.

It might sound perverse but one source of encouragement was the note of desperation in Talat Bulut’s response to his accusers. It was not he who would suffer reputational damage, he insisted, but the woman he harmed. “Who would want to marry such a girl?” he asked adding that her name would be forever tarnished in the eyes of Google’s search engine. Many were revolted by this suggestion, in itself, it is a sign that the emperor was as bare as his deceitful rhetoric. If she so chooses, that young woman will marry – despite the history of being made a victim. But never will Mr. Bulut be remembered as anything other than a shameful predator.

Photo: Women walk under a banner made by lights that reads “together, we are strong” during Women’s Day march on March 8, 2018.

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