Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New York Woman Missing in Istanbul

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of chatter here about the disappearance of 33-year-old Sarai Sierra, the New York woman who never boarded her plane back home last week after spending three weeks exploring Istanbul. I have read a number of the news stories, but it's a little hard to get a handle on what may have happened because the details change/vary (her husband's last name has been reported different ways, some publications say her father went to pick her up while others say her husband, it was reported that she stayed in a hostel, but it was an Airbnb-like apartment situation, etc) and weirder pieces of information seem to emerge every few hours (like the quick side trips to Amsterdam and Munich and the revelation that she had a Dutch tour-guide Internet friend). There are also confusing, unexplained bits to the story -- for example, there's the suggestion that she did not stay at the apartment on her last planned Sunday night in the city, but she spoke to her family the next day. I hope she's safe and just chose not to go home. Otherwise, I really don't know what to make of it.

The thing is, Istanbul is a really safe city for tourists. There are a lot of things I don't like about living in this overcrowded, aggressive megapolis, but I've always felt safe walking around. I have a friend who feels harassed a lot, but I've never had anyone bother me, besides the tourist touts in Sultanahmet, the old city. According to a US State Department bureau, "Istanbul's overall crime rate remains lower than that of other cities of comparable size. While the majority of crime is non-violent in nature, both the level of crime and aggressiveness of criminals remains a concern." According to the Turkish government, in 2005, there were 148,165 recorded crimes in Istanbul, a number that has since fallen. In London, there were nearly 1 million crimes during that period (a number that has also fallen, to just over 800,000 between 2009-10). London's population is/was about 7.5 million; estimates of Istanbul's population vary, and the city is growing fast, but the government estimated it was 12.5 million in 2007. I'll let you do the math.

Of course, anything can happen anywhere -- I think one should exercise caution in Istanbul, as one would and should anywhere. But unscientifically speaking, my observation is that Istanbul (and Turkey in general) is much more dangerous within the family structure. In my opinion, the average woman (and perhaps her children) have much more to fear from their husbands than from a random stranger on the street. There are absolutely horrifying stories, almost every week, of women being brutally murdered by their (ex-)husbands or (ex-)fiances. The most recent news item I saw was last week, of a 25-year-old woman under police protection who was murdered by her husband, whom she was trying to divorce. And these kinds of stories abound. There have also been some religiously and ethnically motivated murders, and honor killings are still perpetrated. Turkey is also a hotspot for sex trafficking, mostly because of its unique geographic location and growing economy, although this seems to mostly affect young, poor women from the former Russian republics. Listing all this, it makes the country sound like a terrible and scary place, I know, but  my point is that while Turkey continues to have some serious issues with gender violence, these issues don't generally affect tourists. I've heard a couple of horrible stories about women who have come here from Turkmenistan to work, and there are a lot of these murder stories in the newspapers, but I have never -- literally not once -- heard a violence story that involved a tourist. Perhaps Sarai Sierra's disappearance will be the first, but I really hope not.

This story has been in the Turkish newspapers, of course, but I've also seen it on the USA Today website and Yahoo. As I usually do, I spent some time reading the Yahoo article's comments -- there are more than 6,000 on a story from yesterday -- but that was a mistake. Because there are a lot of people out there who know absolutely nothing about Istanbul, implying that she deserved what she "got" for going to "that part of the world." A lot of people apparently think that Turkey operates under Sharia law and every woman is completely covered and wearing a headscarf. I shouldn't have been surprised since a good chunk of Yahoo comments are always offensive and uninformed, but yowza.

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  1. My parents and I are traveling to Turkey this year and I was a bit shocked when I read about it. However, after digging more, there seems to be much more to the story than what the press writes. Either way I do hope she is okay and will contact her family. Everyone I know who's gone to Turkey says except for some harassment-it's a safe country for tourist.

    I have read some of the comments on this news story and it seems people need a geography lesson about Istanbul. It isn't the Middle East, Turkey is not a war-torn country and young American women don't generally get abducted into the slave trade-no matter what Taken 2 showed. Not surprised, since I had to explain to my parents that alcohol is available in Turkey, not every woman wears the headscarf and it's not a religious city.

    1. It is generally safe for tourists. When I came backpacking here (alone) in 2010, I noticed that almost everyone working in the hospitality industry was a man and often they were looking for a temporary foreign "friend." Almost every day I received an invitation from someone to go see this or that site -- but it was always for after work (late night) and on their motorbike. I never felt like there were going to be any repercussions for politely declining, but it also seemed completely obvious that a yes to the "trip" would be a yes to sex. (I never accepted, but I heard from others that this theory was correct.) I didn't meet many regular Turks on that trip -- I generally only had the chance to interact with people who worked in restaurants, hotels/hostels, etc. And as a result, it really colored my perception of Turkish men -- there are even websites dedicated to these Turkish "love rats." Even though it's really just a subset of the population, it becomes the impression tourists go home with.

      Anyway...thanks for reading and contributing a comment. I hope you have a great time in Turkey!


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