Turkish Feminists: Fighting Macho Legs and Pink Buses

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As reported in the New York Times last week, women in Turkey are fighting the invasion of their personal space on public transport. The Twitter topics #bacaklarinitopla (“keep your legs to yourself”) and #yerimisgaletme (“don’t invade my personal space”) have been trending over the weekend, accompanied by a variety of damning evidence: photographs of men sitting with their legs akimbo, awkwardly squashing adjacent female passengers. These photographs strike a chord with anyone (male or female, I should add) who has ever been inconvenienced by this most obnoxiously macho of poses on public transport in any city.

What is interesting about the problem of men and women rubbing shoulders or knees in Turkey is the puritanical angle; a couple of years ago, the Islamic political party Saadet campaigned to introduce pink buses in Istanbul exclusively for women. This is such a stupid idea, for so many obvious reasons, that I cringe from listing them but here goes:

Women should not need a pink bus. We should not need a bus of any particular colour. The problem lies with passengers who insist on exercising their capacity for spreading their legs, a capacity sadly not shared by respectable women in public. “Solving” the problem by laying on a psychedelic, infantilised bus service for women is insulting and totally misses the point; the stipulated pink is the offensively saccharine icing on the cake.

The annoyances of commuting in big cities are universal and myriad. There are obvious ways of getting round them, of varying levels of success – on a smelly bus, we open a window. On the metro/tube we collectively glare at passengers with loud headphones. In a dolmuş (a Turkish shared taxi-minibus, its name literally meaning “stuffed” because it is usually full to bursting point), it is an unspoken convention that women share one row (usually the back) and men share the other(s), in this most intimate of public conveyances.

The dolmuş example is significant, because it is an acknowledgment of the tendency to segregate male and female passengers in Turkey, even if informally. Who feels more comfortable for it, the men or the women? I would argue the women, many of whom might be devout Muslims who would not feel comfortable sitting squashed up next to a strange man – either in principle, or in practice. Muslim men might feel equally awkward. Fair enough. We do not all ascribe to religious scruples, but I for one would choose to be squashed next to a women rather than a man. The dolmuş system is not unfair, if we overlook for the moment the significance of women taking the “back seat”. What’s more, it protects us from the leg-splayers, a luxury we do not enjoy on the metro, and hand-wanderers.

The difference between the informal segregation of the dolmuş and the strategic introduction of a special pink Ladies’ Bus is clear. The former is natural for a country with a largely conservative population and a laissez-faire form of public transport. The latter is not only offensive but worrying, because it opens the way for endorsed segregation, more artificial, po-faced and inauthentic “protection” for Turkish women, many of whom are routinely beaten by their husbands and ignored by the authorities. It makes women the problem.

Lastly, I can’t help thinking that the magical pink bus, ostensibly a service laid on for women, is in fact a service for men – it makes me think of the segregation in mosques, where women sit in a smaller section at the back so as not to sexually distract praying men.

Perhaps Twitter has got it right – a popular, light-hearted but heartfelt campaign to embarrass repeat offenders on public transport might be just the ticket for change that we need.

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