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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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?"
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