CITIES, travel notes

On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Watch this now: an older man appears like a hurricane, shouting; enters the table space of the cafe, shouting something about a bike, at the turquoise woman, who answers back, visibly frightened. He pushed the tables to get to her, he is waving his hands into her face. The younger women spring up immediately, like coils, and start shouting back at him. One of them wrestles out and away from the table and pushes the bike away – it falls on the ground, clearing a space between the cafe chairs. The man is still shouting. The younger woman almost jumps at him, is held back by other women, finally some men arrive to restrain the man, too. More shouting. Finally the man distances himself from the table, still shouting from the street, like a storm on his slow way out. The police are here now, looking over. The younger woman runs after him, shouting – if he moves slowly, she has been dashing around the space like a spark. One of the police officers grabs her, and what ensues is clearly a Turkish rendition of “will you calm down, m’am”. Shouting here, shouting there. Everyone in the cafe is having an opinion on the situation, loudly but amongst themselves.

I told this story to my friend Yeşim and she said, they probably borrowed the bike without permission.

Titian: The Rape of Lucretia (Tarquin and
Lucretia), 1571

But the plot is not important. What’s interesting here is the moment of police intervention.

Let me continue by way of digression. Yeşim’s story: she is 15, dancing in a bar in Istanbul, when a man starts feeling her up (‘feels her up’, rather? The duration of these things is always such a subjective matter). She pushes him away and yells at him, goes out to have a smoke and calm down. He follows her; calls her names (whore, bitch); punches her in the face. Yeşim, who thinks it’s useless trying to be civil in these situations, throws a glass at him. The police, who were around, not doing anything, now try to arrest her for violence.

In Yeşim’s words: if a woman hits a man, that’s violence on the street; if a man hits a woman, that’s just everyday life.

Yeşim had to say this for me to notice. The cafe scene is certainly representative of a larger phenomenon, something we are all familiar with: until the woman retorts, it’s not really a domestic fight. It’s- what? One man disciplining his household, as is his duty? Or one man being an arsehole, as so many men are prone to? Some sort of sad reality that causes discomfort and awkwardness? Whatever option you choose, it’s normal and expected and nothing we can do about it and let’s not intervene. But the moment the woman answers in kind, oh, we better calm things down, this is getting out of hand.

I should add that the police did not direct a single word or gesture at the man – not a blink of a warning, not a stern pat on the shoulder, not a finger raised. Whatever the man did was not worthy of their attention.

I ask, because of Yeşim, how many equivalent situations does each one of us witness every week? While this was happening in Istanbul, a friend of mine reported the following from Melbourne:

“Tough-looking couple on the train – but the guy is the clingy one, both hands neurotically fondling his partner. She says, rather ominously: “I just need a breather – some time out”. Then – in an amazing gesture – the guy stealthily grabs her necklace at the back of her neck and slowly pulls it behind her until it becomes a choker !! Whoa.”

My friend didn’t do anything about it, of course. We don’t, we can’t, who can?, nobody can. It is just everyday life. It’s not violence. It would be violence if she responded.

Yeşim walked home with me through Istanbul later on, telling me not to worry. The city is full of junkies and drunks, she said, and they might be aggressive, but she always has a knife on her.

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  1. Pingback: There is this thing called ‘right to the city’; women have it too. | guerrilla semiotics

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