This weekend’s twin blasts in Ankara were devastating to local residents. Before this summer’s elections and the violence that followed the AKP failing to gain their majority, I wrote this for the Telegraph’s Expat Zone. Just goes to show how much the next election in November matters. You can read the edited version here.
Between the threat of terrorism and questions about women’s rights, Turkey has been making the headlines a lot lately. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is the 18th most likely country in the world for Brits to require assistance while abroad, with violence against women on the increase, too. Last month saw protests in cities across the region following the violent murder of 20-year-old female student Ozgecan Aslan, although it was the male demonstrators in skirts who attracted the most attention.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that since I moved to the Turkish capital, Ankara, from London almost six months ago because of my partner’s work, the thing I’ve been asked most by friends and family is: “Are you safe?”. It’s a tricky question to answer.
Let’s start with terrorism. It’s hard not to be a little on edge considering warnings of heightened security risks across the country and the recent suicide bombing of Istanbul’s busy tourist district, Sultanahmet. One American told this paper late last year that she felt an “unnerving sense of doom” and likened the atmosphere in Turkey to pre-war Germany. Others talked of making escape plans and avoiding crowded places such as shopping malls.
I was jumpy during my first few months here too – every low flying plane or loud noise set my heart racing. However, how many major capital cities are there that aren’t at risk from terrorism? The UK’s terror threat level is set to ‘severe’ and I’ve been having mini-heart attacks following loud noises in London since 7/7.
The longer I’m in Ankara, the less I worry. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and, along with armed police, soldiers are omnipresent. It’s a little authoritarian, yes. Ankara’s government buildings are so dystopian they could have been pulled straight from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet when there are frequent warnings of planned attacks on the city – particularly the US embassy, which I live alarmingly close to – a spot of austerity and few weapons can be surprisingly comforting.
Gender inequality, is, for me, a stickier topic. Turkey ranks 125th out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender gap index, meaning little has been done to tackle inequality. To put that into context, India was 114th. 300 women have been murdered in the last year alone and UN Women have warned that: “Two out of every five women in Turkey are exposed to sexual and physical violence.”
It can be hairy at times being a woman in Turkey. Two of my friends have been followed in the street and a group of young men once tried to solicit sex from me when I accidentally wandered into the old town after dark. However, if I’m honest, despite my concerns over the treatment of women in Turkey, on a day-to-day basis I don’t feel repressed or unsafe. It saddens me to admit though, that this has a lot to do with where I live – in Kavaklıdere, a posh part of town that could perhaps best be described as the Kensington of Ankara. It’s an area dotted with embassies, trendy bars and restaurants close to the city centre. It’s liberal, young and politically fervent – on Fridays nights women get their glad rags on and drink/dance/chat their working weeks away as they might anywhere in the UK.
That being said, the US government rates Ankara’s crime levels as ‘low’ meaning that, despite Turkey facing its fair share of issues, it wouldn’t be that crazy to class Ankara as a fairly safe city. Unlike London, there is little street crime. If you absent-mindedly leave your phone on the table in a bar, more often then not, it will still be there when you get back. There is, however, one side of Ankara life that does scare the life out of its residents. Oh, how I wish drivers would pay attention to the roads