Maybe I reached too high, and had too far to fall. It has been two months since my return to the US. Intimate partner violence, or domestic abuse, was something I never imagined that I would stumble into. But misogyny and patriarchy run deep, especially in Turkey, and I found myself in a bad situation.
I am a radical activist based in Washington DC. I fell in love with an energetic, charismatic activist I met in November when I was present to write about resistance to the G20 Summit, a global event in Antalya, Turkey. After I came home to the US, we talked every day. He was lovely and charming, I thought at the time. He offered a ready smile, engaging kindness, and intelligent conversation. He said all the right things to convince me that he cared about women’s rights and activism. In February, I decided to return to Turkey with the promise of love driving me forward. I couldn’t have known things would turn sour.
I thought that even if this were not going to develop into a deeper relationship, it would be an opportunity to learn more about this Muslim country during an interesting political moment, and I could do some work around refugees. I also thought, hey, at least I would probably make a dear friend.
The first two weeks were quite the love story. I observed that he was drinking heavily, and called him an “alky,” but it was just a joke at first. We went to the beach and historic sites, and he introduced me to his friends. All seemed to be going well, and I felt that the romance was solidly moving forward.
Then came our first fight. I had wanted to interview a local woman for an article on Syrian refugees. He did not approve. He knew the woman and did not like her, so he strictly forbade me from speaking with her. After I questioned his rationale, he yelled and stormed out of the room to go smoke a cigarette. I just stood in the middle of the room not knowing what to do. Of course, as a Western woman, no one had ever forbidden me from speaking with anyone else. It was a strange feeling: Don’t I have a mouth to speak? Why can I not use it as I wish?
This is elementary feminism. No man has the power to silence a woman, just because he is a man. How far backwards things would slide in the coming weeks.
What I found over the next few weeks was absolute frustration of my efforts to do my advocacy work. I had put myself in a place of dependence upon a person who, as it turned out, would have liked to keep me by his side and control my every move. He hindered, rather than helped, the work I tried to do there.
After the first few weeks, I thought about leaving every day, but I had not budgeted for hotel rooms, flights, or buses, nor done the groundwork needed to act effectively there. I had assumed, based on things he’d said, that he’d be helping me with translation and navigating the system. But our conversations made it clear that he had no intention of helping, and was more interested in guilt-tripping me for wanting to do anything else than just spend time with him. I felt stuck.
Things deteriorated rapidly. His insecurity and childishness got worse. In the following weeks, I was violently pushed, blocked from leaving freely, and repeatedly told not to speak. If I spoke anyway, anger erupted. I endured threats that I would be burnt with cigarettes, flinching as he “faked” with his lit cigarette. I had to duck to avoid having sharp objects thrown at my face. I had water angrily poured over my head.
On one occasion, he threw my iPhone angrily to the ground (luckily it did not break) while I was trying to exchange contact information with an Irish woman. He had such a strange look about him that I feared for my safety when I got into the car with him to go home. He proceeded to drive like a maniac, accelerating menacingly towards a wall and recklessly endangering both of us. This was such a strange evening that the Irish woman I’d met earlier in the night actually sent a text message after I’d left, checking to make sure I was okay. Yes, I was, I told her, even if that wasn’t entirely true.
Another drunken, angry moment came after my abuser had arranged to borrow a car from his friend in order to drive across Turkey to visit a refugee camp and get an interview with a certain aid worker. (He did so only when I told him that I would take a bus alone.) The night after the interview, my abuser, holding my recording device in one hand and a beer in the other, threatened to delete the audio interview that we had both worked so hard to get. What triggered his anger that night? I had (politely) corrected him on a fact about the refugee camp that we had learned earlier in the day. I guess he couldn’t accept that his maleness did not equal permission to be right every single time. (I tricked him into giving me back the device, and I backed up the file immediately.)
Earlier that day, he had delayed our arrival at the interview, after pulling the car to the side of the road and irrationally threatening not to drive for another hour. He then decided to steer far out of the way in order to get a beer, despite my urging him to just drive straight to the interview site and get a beer later. We were in danger of missing the interview completely, if we did not arrive before the aid workers left for the day. But his anger had been triggered when he interpreted a vague, unimportant comment that I made about a road while looking out the window and away from him as “not listening” and “disrespecting” him. So thin and frail was his confidence.
Unwanted sex? Rape? All the time. He did not stop to determine whether I consented to sex. Several times, he turned off my wifi and lied about it, a modern-day form of gaslighting. He verbally criticized me for using social media, my main link to the rest of my life back in the US, and tried to discourage me from using it. He forced me to unfriend one Turkish man on Facebook, and wanted me to unfriend many more.
All the while, he drank heavily every day. I tried to pretend that everything was okay, that these challenges were minor, that I just needed to grin and bear it and try to get my work done. I told myself that this would not be permanent, that I just need to endure. Even though things got progressively worse, each time I looked to the horizon. I put silver linings on all of the clouds.
Then there were his attempts to control my social media content, especially as pertains to the political situation in Turkey. He would look at my social media profiles and rebuke me for my commentary. At first, I genuinely questioned my perspective, and wondered if I should take his words into account. After all, he is Turkish and I am not. But I soon realized that I did not share his opinions on Turkey’s domestic or foreign policy. I stood my ground on my right to free speech. Luckily, his efforts at censorship were stymied by his inability to understand my written text in English. But if he could have, he would have loved to have total control over my words. This was an extreme form of control and a violation of my free speech.
And there was the day that we drove out to some farm land near the town of Serik, far from the area of Antalya that I was familiar with, with several of his friends. We were drinking whiskey on the way out to the land. When we got there, we proceeded to walk around and enjoy the land. Then, my abuser told me that all of them would be taking cocaine. (Drug use among men is not shunned in Turkey the way it is in the US. Cocaine is something that Turkish men actually do a shocking amount of.) I told him that I did not want to take cocaine, and did not feel safe with his friends. He took issue with this, and tried to convince me that I should just do the drugs. I refused. He stormed away and presumably imbibed, leaving me to stroll around alone for the next hour by the river.
I shed so many tears on Turkish soil. After angry outbursts from my abuser, he would calm down and often apologize. He would want us to hang out with his friends and carry on as if everything were normal. He would turn his charm back on. He even treated me with some kindness in between his angry episodes. I coped somewhat by getting drunk with him, so that I would stop caring. And I would “forgive” him. After all, I felt I had nowhere to go.
Although services are rare in Turkey for intimate partner violence survivors, they do exist. I now know that should have tried to find one. I even could have gone to the US consulate or US State Department offices. I think I was just too proud. At the time, I didn’t want anyone to know of these issues, except for hinting to family members in e-mails that we were having arguments.
But I know now not to blame myself. Yes, I had made myself vulnerable, but I couldn’t have guessed that this man, who said he cared about women’s rights, who spoke of how many activist friends that he had, who had participated in many protests in the past, would turn on me, and that he would become so angry and irrational.
One-third of men surveyed in Turkey in 2013 stated that it is “occasionally necessary” to commit acts of violence against women, and 28 percent stated that violence could be used to “discipline women.” I did not want to believe that I was in this statistic. I had dreams of him strangling me to death. I was in constant fear of his next angry episode. I had lost respect for him, even as he angrily demanded respect from me in a variety of situations. But I still “forgave” him, too many times.
I honestly think that one of the reasons that I have been silent about this for two months has been that I did not want to feed into the narrative of Muslim men being aggressive. I didn’t want to fuel hatred or racism. But silence breeds complicity, and am now telling this story in order to heal.
Jailed by Turkish police
After a particularly horrible evening of arguments and him violently throwing things, I had managed to successfully collect my luggage, saying I would walk to a hotel. He said he would drive me there. I think he did so because he wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave while he was away, without him at least knowing where I was. We sat mostly in silence. I got checked in at the hotel, still not knowing if I would be able to afford all of this, and we said a very strange goodbye.
Two days later, however, I was jailed by Turkish police for several hours when I tried to simply enter a large public speech in Antalya by the president of Turkey. (They make a habit of jailing reporters and activists, and I didn’t look like I fit their norms. I wrote about this experience with the Turkish police here.) I had an “out of the frying pan and into the fire” sensation. After a harrowing ordeal, I was released that afternoon, and I decided to call my abuser to alert him that all of this had happened. I had given the Turkish authorities all of my information, including my passport information and the address of my hotel, and was fearful that the authorities would show up again to arrest me. Stroking his ego that he was my protector, he came to my side. He may have been awful, but I felt safer knowing that this abusive man at least had my back and would not let me disappear into a Turkish jail.
Final Days, Getting Trapped in Istanbul
The worst moment of this relationship came on our last weekend together. Although I was already aware that I had to get away from him, he had talked me into allowing him to accompany me on a college tour and other activities in Istanbul, and arranged for us to stay in his friend’s apartment. I thought I could use his help with navigation and would save money on hotel arrangements. But the moment that we both arrived in the city, he began angrily arguing with me about directions. I at first tried to smile and calm him down, but then he once again insulted my intelligence. I told him that I was leaving and began walking toward a district with hotels and hostels that I knew. But he grabbed my suitcase and quickly carried it to a nearby taxi stand, closing it into the trunk. The taxi driver spoke no English, and my abuser began communicating with him in Turkish. I had no choice but to go with him, sitting alone in the backseat and crying. What a mistake I’d made to allow this abuser to come with me to another city.
A few thrown objects and another bad argument later, he again apologized. I felt that the situation was hopeless. But again I was too proud to reach out, which was a mistake. I would be leaving the country soon enough, I thought. Either way this will all be over soon.
The next day, we were on the college campus, surrounded by young students who spoke English. I think he sensed he now didn’t have control over my communication, as everyone around me spoke some English. When I tried to ask a young man for directions, my abuser’s mood changed dramatically. He angrily said that I needed to “respect” him, with other young students walking past, and he threatened to burn me with his cigarette. Trying to avoid causing a scene, I remained calm and tried to diffuse his anger. (As if it is my job to manage the childish anger of this man!) A few minutes later, he decided, for basically no reason, that we should not be inside the building we were in, barred me with his arms, and forced me to walk down the stairs and out of the building. I tried to comply with his irrational wishes to avoid making a public scene.
A few minutes later, as we were walking outside on a quiet campus path, he snapped. He began repeatedly pushing me, basically trying to push me off of campus. (His angry words were “Okay, we are leaving! We are leaving!”) A professor leaned out of her office window to tell him to stop. Speaking in English, she said, “I don’t like how you were pushing her.” A man with a phone appeared. We both had to leave. I walked in silence with him for half an hour until we were far away from campus, but at a bus station surrounded by people. I told him that I was leaving for good. I firmly told him exactly why, and told him that no one deserved the treatment that I have received. He responded by taking my bag with my extra money, my iPad, my journal, and some of my cherished keepsakes, telling me that I would have to come with him if I wanted my belongings, and rapidly walking off. He refused to return my bag, forcing me to chase him through the streets. Meanwhile, onlookers appeared somewhat concerned, but no one stopped to help or ask questions. How many cases of abuse fly under the radar as “just another lover’s quarrel”?
I finally caught up with him and told him once and for all to return my bag so that I could go back to our room, in his friend’s apartment, and collect my things so that I could leave him. He refused to tell me his friend’s home address, phone number, or even last name so that I could contact the friend and access my luggage. Then he threatened to steal all of my luggage and bring it back with him across the country, all the way from Istanbul to Antalya.
When I threatened to call the police, he gave me the most evil eye and told me that domestic abuse was not taken seriously in Turkey. He said, accurately, that we would likely both wind up in jail if I did that, and he would simply talk his way out of the situation. After all, I had no bruises or broken bones, and with his silver (forked) tongue he could easily talk his way out of the situation. How dare he discuss these injustices now, I thought, injustices that he had learned from his feminist friends, in order to perpetrate his own male violence against me. But I knew that he was right.
Instead of opening a court case against him that I was unlikely to win, I let him successfully use the threat of him stealing all of my possessions to force me to stay one more night, marching forward like a prisoner. I had no freedom to leave. That was one of the strangest nights of my life. But I survived. I made it out. I had stayed with him for more than two months.
Spirit, Shame, and Stigma
The physical abuse was accompanied by degrading comments. Like many abusers, his real desire is for control, and he sought that through psychological means first. He said I was disorganized, I was too proud, I was a “prostitute” for accepting donations for my advocacy work, I was social-media-addicted, my social media wasn’t even very good, I made him wait an extra five seconds (not exaggerating, five seconds!) while downloading the latest US State Department travel advisories, which made him flip out and yell at me for ten minutes, I had probably had sex with all of the Turkish men who were my Facebook friends, I talked too much, I asked him the wrong questions, etc etc.
His desire to degrade me, however, only made me push back harder and verbally defend myself. I am no shrinking violet. He can try to push, but there is an iron rod at my core that will not budge. He was unable to shake my sense of self-worth. I believe that is why he progressed from psychological means of control to physical ones.
How can a radical activist and a feminist find herself in a relationship like this? An abundance of optimism is perhaps my greatest crime.
In the end, though I had been dependent upon my abuser in Turkey, I had the privilege of getting on an airplane and leaving. At the end of all of this, I was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean and get away from him forever.
Turkish women are not so lucky. Although they experience more freedom than women in other Muslim countries, about 42 percent of women in Turkey report intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, Turkish officials make unhelpful comments telling women to avoid public laughter and not to be “inviting” in their behavior, lest they become victims of sexual violence. The Health Minister and President say that the “most important career” for a woman is motherhood. This does nothing to improve the status of women in Turkey.
“Sometimes, it’s not violence, but the threat of violence that makes life so hard,” I was told by a wise woman. Maybe that is why Turkish women can seldom be seen outside the home at night. Maybe that is why they are so quiet. Maybe it is the constant threat that wears you down, more than the dramatic, but occasional, acts of physical violence.
I haven’t known how to talk about all of this without feeling re-traumatized. Also, as much as I know that I should not feel guilty, there is the stigma of “if it happens once, shame on him, but if it happens twice, shame on you.” I feel like this stigma is compounded and multiplied for a feminist woman like myself. Shouldn’t I have had the strength to bust out of there at the earliest hint of trouble? I ask myself that question, too. I was riding an aggressive surf, and it was calm between the crashing waves. Surely I could have slipped out unnoticed when the waters were quiet?
There are hundreds of reasons that women make the choice to stay with an abuser at first: for self-preservation, for economic reasons, for their children. Maybe they have been demoralized and believe the lies their abuser tells them. But we survive, and leave when we can.
I know that the choices I made were for self-preservation. I tried, with cheerful resilience, to make the most of the situation. I stayed because I was trapped without money in a foreign country, I barely knew the language, and I knew the justice system was unlikely to believe me if I called the police.
Healing, Opening, Writing, Telling This Story
I am still dealing with the post-trauma aftershocks of all of this. It is honestly hard sometimes to go forward. I have barely done any writing for two months on my experiences in Turkey, despite the country’s deteriorating political situation. I have had a creative block, walking around with my head on fire but unwilling to talk openly about it. Why? This is what is real for me now: My experience of intimate partner violence.
It is funny that my family and friends were so worried about terrorism, about bombs or ISIL or the Kurdish fighters. And no doubt the various attacks that happened while I was there were also traumatizing. But what my loved ones should have been worried about was the man next to me in my Facebook photographs, with his Cheshire smile. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it until now.
There is a deep place inside of me now that knows what it is like to be truly unsafe, to feel like I have nowhere to turn, to simply go through the motions for self-preservation. But the past is getting more and more distant, and each day is a new chance to heal, to forgive myself, and to move forward.
Telling this story helps. Writing things down is a form of releasing them, giving them little wings. I survived. I feel stronger now. I feel wiser now.
My heart goes out to all of the women who are surviving right now under the thumb of an abuser. I am speaking to you. You have more strength and power than you know. Reach out, get help. You may feel, as I did, that there is no help for you. But there is always help. There are people out there who are ready to love you, believe you, and help you. You can get your life and your joy back. You have a unique gift to share with the world, and the world deserves to hear from you.
*Note that I tried to post this article on a blog for Personal Domestic Violence Stories, but the story was not accepted, perhaps because of political content. So I post it here.
If you think you might be experiencing intimate partner violence or domestic abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.