Published May 15, 2012
Under the shade of a tree at an Istanbul cafe, Suzan, a voluptuous woman in her 50s with dyed blond hair and a warm, generous smile, describes how she went from teenage bride to full-time sex worker.
Over several cups of Nescafé during the span of a humid summer afternoon, and backed by the brilliant blue of the Sea of Marmara, Suzan tells her story. As she talks, her cell phone rings nearly every 15 minutes. Customers, she explains. It's a syncopation of male desire, hungry for her attention.
She was married off by her father at age 16, with only a primary-school education, and she left her alcoholic, gambling husband after having seven children with him, one of whom died in infancy. To support the remaining six, she tried everything: selling cheap clothes in a local market, working in a factory, waitressing at a tea garden. But her meager earnings didn't cover school fees for six children. A chance meeting with a sex worker while waiting for a train convinced her it was time to switch careers.
Despite charging only $15 to $30 per client, she found she could make a decent living, particularly as she amassed a steady base of customers who liked and trusted her. Unlike other jobs, however, this one put her in the cross-hairs of the law. In the 20 years she has worked in this field, she has been fined by the police more times than she can count, and she has appeared in court more than 50 times. Four years ago, she spent six months in prison while police investigated her possible involvement with drugs and work with underage girls. They found evidence of neither and released her without charges.
Until then, Suzan had hidden her work from her children. But the six-month sentence compelled her to tell them where she was going -- and why. In a voice clotted with emotion, she recalls how they comforted her during their weekly visits to the jail. "They told me, 'It's OK, Mom. You raised us, and you brought us bread. Can we come and talk to the judge? We can tell him how you were such a great mom,'" she says.
When the last of her children finishes school -- after she has seen her youngest daughter graduate from college -- she plans to leave the industry for good.
Istanbul is no Bangkok. Its sex trade is, for the most part, invisible. But sex work, both lawful and unlawful, has a long, distinguished history in Turkey that reaches back to the height of the Ottoman Empire. In the 21st century, however, it is quietly being swept away by an Islamist government whose desired image for Turkey -- modern, pious, and upwardly mobile -- leaves little room for the work of Suzan and her colleagues.
According to its Health Ministry, Turkey currently has 3,000 licensed sex workers, who work in 56 state-run brothels known as genel evler, or "general houses." Unlicensed sex workers number 100,000 -- more than 30 times as many -- about half of whom are foreign. (Turkey is a destination for Eastern European women, known as "Natashas," who either arrive voluntarily or are trafficked.)
Upon Suzan's release from prison, she applied to open a government-licensed brothel of her own. "I was ready to pay my taxes," she says. "I have a family; I know what it means to have a family. I don't want to do this in an apartment building with families around, or in a car like I do now."
Her application, however, was rejected. The stated reason was a "lack of space." She is hardly alone. Over the last decade, as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has steadily accumulated power, the number of licenses granted slowed to a trickle and in the past three years has ceased entirely.
The existing genel evler are also being closed or moved to urban peripheries. In some cities, it's done with little fanfare. In others, grinning mayors hold triumphant news conferences in front of the rubble where the demolished den of sin once stood. For women like Suzan, the net result is the same: fewer places where they can work without fear of harassment, violence, and arrest.
Turkey has long straddled Europe and the Middle East -- both politically and culturally -- and the changing standards toward the sex trade are part and parcel of this larger identity crisis. If Turkey considers itself a European country, the policies on its books fall comfortably in line with neighbors such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, where sex work is decriminalized or legal. But if Turkey sees itself as part of the Middle East, its policies toward prostitution become a jarring abnormality. Although the sex trade flourishes in the region -- Iraqi women and girls engage in survival sex in Damascus and Amman; Eastern European women are trafficked into Dubai; older men from the Gulf take temporary child brides in Egypt -- it does so exclusively in the shadows.
The regulation of sex work in Turkey was always been a murky affair. A 1909 government report noted that brothels located near an Istanbul police barracks had led to the corruption of the police. Generations later, the fetor of corruption still hung in the air. In the 1980s, an Armenian madam named Mathilde Manukyan operated half a dozen brothels in addition to substantial real estate holdings. Before her death in 2002, she was rumored to be one of Turkey's biggest taxpayers, receiving annual prizes from the staunchly secular government for her contributions to the public coffers. But she was also said to employ underage girls, whose presence was blithely ignored by cops allegedly on her payroll.
Filiz Kargal, 35, says her husband sold her to Manukyan "for a bag full of money" when she was just 13 years old. They had been married three months. Sitting on a park bench in the working-class neighborhood of Sirinevler, with her hair tucked under a green kerchief, she describes Manukyan's ruthlessly efficient enterprise.
Women worked from morning until night, she said, breaking only for lunch. The meal was another opportunity for profit: The women were forced to purchase it from a Manukyan-run canteen, mediocre food at inflated prices. Every few months, she and her colleagues were forced to sign papers stating they owed money to the brothel.
Kargal is now suing Manukyan's son for failing to pay her social security over 12 years in the brothels, plus damages. Together, the lawsuits could be worth $500,000. Other women formerly in Manukyan's employ complained of similar shenanigans -- withholding of wages, overcharging for basic necessities bought inside the brothels, failure to pay social security -- leading Kargal's lawyer, Abdurrahman Tanriverdi, to conclude that this was standard operating procedure.
But the present Turkish government is breaking down sex workers' already scant protections. "The government is willing to keep up the fight against prostitution, so the brothels cease functioning," says a spokesman for the Health Ministry. "Before [sex workers] 'fall into' prostitution, we want to reform and correct them, and to rehabilitate them."
The Health Ministry says it now provides cards for health checks instead of licenses, but it is unclear if holding a card allows sex workers to operate unmolested. Little detailed information about the policy exists in the public sphere, and neither the sex workers I spoke to, nor any sex-worker activists, had heard of the health cards. The spokesman, who declined to give his name, cited a 1973 law as the basis for the card system, but that law does not mention cards.
The Turkish economy may be booming, but the AKP's policies have pushed women further to the economic margins. The Turkish economy has more than tripled since the current government took power in 2002, but nearly two-thirds of working-age women -- 62.5 percent -- still have no personal income. Female labor-force participation stands at around 24 percent, the lowest of any OECD country. Furthermore, over 40 percent of women have experienced physical and sexual violence, meaning a woman is significantly more likely to have survived abuse than be gainfully employed.
Chastened, possibly, by the blowback from clumsy attempts to ban alcohol sales in several cities, the AKP has used subtler means to crack down on the sex industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the capital, Ankara, where longtime AKP Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek has made it a priority to target the city's long-established brothel district.
"In 1994, when the mayor was elected, the first words he said were 'I will cancel their licenses and take the genel evler out of the city,'" says Hakkan Yildirim, a lawyer who works with Pembe Hayat, a group advocating for LGBT and sex workers' rights. Following the AKP's 2007 reelection, Gokcek finally gained the power to make good on his promise. By 2008, according to Yildirim, the mayor had closed down half the city's brothels, leaving an estimated 330 women out on the street.
Turkish officials' methods for forcing sex workers off the street skirt the boundaries of the law. In 2007, for example, the Commission Against Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Ankara issued a directive to police, ordering them to fine street workers -- especially transgender ones -- for "behavior against public order."
Yildirim filed a case against the directive in November 2007, but by then, it had already been used thousands of times to line Ankara's coffers. "The average working girl can have 2,000 to 5,000 TL [Turkish lira] in fines in a year," he says, the equivalent of $1,100 to $2,800. "And consider that there are 300 to 400 transgender sex workers in Ankara. That's 600,000 to 2,000,000 TL they're making each year in fines."
Yildirim promptly won his case, but police had already seized upon a new law to wield against streetwalkers: the Law on the Powers and Duties of the Police, which cites sex workers for interfering with traffic. The fine? Around $66 -- the same amount as for violating the directive that was just struck down.
In other words, "the state is pimping the sex workers," says Kemal Ordek, the secretary-general of Pembe Hayat.
The Kamil Pasha mansion, built in the late 19th century, once hosted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself. Its current occupant is Veysel Tiryaki, a junior mayor in charge of Altindag district. His assistant guides my interpreter and me through the sunny, flower-filled courtyard and into a spacious inner office, where we arrange ourselves on couches that take up half the room.
First elected in 2004, Tiryaki is now in his second term as mayor of the district. In the past five years, he boasts, he has opened 22 cultural and education centers specifically for women, at a cost of $1 million each. Another cultural center, he says, is being constructed at a cost of $10 million.
"There were many poor and illiterate women are living in this area. But now 35,000 women are going to these centers. All of them are new buildings," he says proudly, handing me a heavy, glossy brochure. "They're learning and reading and writing." Have they been able to find jobs? "Cok!" he screams, "And how!" According to him, about 250 women started working in his municipality, and 100 women had started their own businesses.
Speaking of poor women, I venture, what about the genel evler? Did he have plans to develop the red-light district as well?
"That region, the brothels, they are being destroyed at the moment," he says. "It is not correct to have the brothels there, because this is a historical region."
But if they were built in the 1930s, doesn't that make them part of Turkish history as well?
"There are mosques and schools around the neighborhood, so the brothels should not be close to them," he reasons. The interpreter points out that pretty much every neighborhood in Turkey is full of mosques and schools. In that case, I ask, what about the women who work there? Where will they go?
Tiryaki acknowledges that there will be no more locations in which they may work legally, but suggests that they might "pursue their activities" in the many nearby hotels in the area around the brothels. In fact, many unlicensed sex workers already do pursue their activities in those hotels. Walking around the area at night, I saw women hanging about in their lobbies, smoking cigarettes and waiting for a bit of business to appear.
Brothel employees are not the only ones out of work. On an unseasonably cold, gray summer day, I meet Hasim Kerekli, 47, just outside a brothel entrance, which is guarded by a policeman who checks clients' identification cards. Dressed in a striped polo shirt and sporting a very Anatolian mustache, he is leaning against a car, smoking cigarettes and talking with a group of friends.
Until last July, Kerekli and his brothers owned a bustling brothel that employed 14 women. With the roughly $8,300 he earned per month, he supported his wife and six children. One day, out of the blue, a municipal official arrived at 9 a.m. brandishing a notice: His license had not been renewed, and his brothel was to be demolished.
Days later, Kerekli watched helplessly as the wrecking crew tore down his business. Everything was over by 11 a.m. He walks me over to the site of his old brothel, surveying the now-empty lot, overgrown with weeds and littered with empty bottles and detritus. One jagged, stumpy panel of pink wall still stands.
Kerekli contends that the government is targeting small-brothel owners while leaving larger, more powerful entities untouched.
"If they decide to knock down the brothels, they should knock down all the brothels," he says, "but they only knock down the houses of proprietors with only one house. We're just individuals. How can we resist the state?"
The brothels not only offend Turkey's increasingly socially conservative sensibilities, but they're getting in the way of a frenzy of modernization. To hear Ali Ihsan Olmez tell it, they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The deputy of Ankara's municipal assembly and a former schoolteacher, Olmez is a loyal AKP foot soldier. In a long interview in his office, punctuated by a series of cigarettes (he laughed when I mentioned that smoking is banned in public buildings), Olmez described a major renewal plan for the Altindag district that will include a "grand history museum" celebrating Ottoman cultural and historical heritage.
"Whether being a 'working girl' is 'work' or not, that's not the concern of the metropolitan municipality," he insists. "Our main concern is to account for all of the geographical factors of this project, and the fact is, the brothels are located in that area, which is the oldest historical part of Ankara. Whether they should or shouldn't do it, we don't think about that."
But either way, he says, they cannot stay.
"This restoration is a giant project, an important project." Attempts to bring up the sex workers' plight are dismissed with metaphor: "We are talking about such a grand, grand project. It is like I am talking about a camel, and you are talking about a fly under its tail."
Leaving the brothels in place, he says, would be akin to "remodeling your own house without cleaning the kitchen, which is occupied by cockroaches." He repeats the analogy for emphasis. "As much as you redecorate and sterilize, if you don't kill the cockroaches in the kitchen, does such a kitchen belong in your new house?"