Travelling Istanbul: A Blacked Out City with Red Flags

A letter to ladies when travelling to Istanbul. It is an incredible city with a rich history and beautiful architecture and food, but a flawed country when it comes to protecting women.

How to Stay Safe as a Solo Female Traveler

Istanbul is electrifying — one of the biggest connections between Europe, Africa and Asia and a crowded, hustling city as well as my first travel experience outside of western Europe. After spending several hours going through customs, the airport shuttle dropped me off at Taxsim Square, the center of modern Istanbul and a well-known tourist district.

Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Avenue- a long pedestrian street lined with restaurants, shops and hotels.

Weary of the throngs of people and feeling exposed as a new tourist with packs on my back and front, I delicately maneuvered my way through the boisterous herds.  A man approached me as we walked in the same direction and asked to accompany me. Maybe he saw my vulnerability or maybe he was a genuinely nice guy, he kept the conversation flowing sprinkling me with questions of my weekend plans, recommendations, and flattery. I let him navigate me and my wide load through the crowds and when we got close to my hostel I gave him a bogus phone number and a fake out to another hotel.  He seemed decent, just not a person I would like to meet again. 

Within 5 minutes of arriving at my hostel there was a city-wide blackout. I took a deep sigh of relief having narrowly made it home and not scavenging the pitch-black streets with a stranger. Throughout the night, Istanbul’s electrical grid would be overloaded again and again, not surprising for the middle of summer with every household and business pushing air-con, fans, music, and neon lights. With the darkness brought the silence and relief from the steady electrical humming.

There were four of us sharing a humid hostel room. A Turkish guy, and two Moroccan guys on separate business to Istanbul. One of the Moroccans was a blind street musician that sold loose cigarettes and pens unfazed by the blackouts and the other felt personally responsible to be my escort each evening and together we’d hit up the night markets and music festivals.

During the day, I felt confident exploring Istanbul’s beauty on my own, but even then there were hawkish men. I was chatted up by a young waiter that seemed polite and eager to exchange WhatsApp numbers and then flooded my phone with proclamations of love and dick pics over the coming days.    

As a girl travelling alone, I am frequently approached. Most encounters are friendly and good spirited and I can often ward off negative attentions politely. If that doesn’t work, a stern “fuck off” usually does the trick. I will always promote solo female travelers, but when you go to Istanbul be selective with the company you keep.

TRAVEL TIP: Question Confetti

A technique I have aquired and found very effective is what I call question confetti. If I am uncomfortable being asked if I am travelling alone I reply: “Huh, that’s a strange question to ask.” Then spray the man with a ton of awkward personal questions, “What did you eat for breakfast? When is the last time you visited the dentist? Do you like your coworkers? How is the relationship with your mother? Do you believe in God? Do you have children?” Laugh it off then say, “that’s right none of this is my fucking business.” You shift the conversation and take back your power and the upper hand.

#istanbulsozlesmesiyasatir #kadinasiddetehayir

*Since I originally wrote this, in July of 2020 there was a rise in femicide awareness in Turkey with the black and white photo challenge #istanbulsozlesmesiyasatir and #kadinasiddetehayir roughly translating to “enforce the Istanbul convention” and “say no to violence against women.”   The violence toward women in Turkey is predominately by husbands, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and other male relatives.  Between 2013 and 2019 there have been more than 2,200 violent domestic abuse deaths of women, with Istanbul having the highest statistics.

**As of 22 March 2021 Turkey has pulled out of the Istanbul Convention, an International Treaty to protect women and hold their abusers accountable, putting women in Turkey and all over the world at a greater risk of violence.

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