|Turkey General Information
Date Poster: 07-01-2001
A May 1999 report, to be placed in a section for general info on turkey, not an area-specific text:
THE GENELEVS OF TURKEY
- There is not much difference between the small crowd in front of Komissyon 14 and one looking at an interesting new cage in a zoo. 30 men are staring through a large glass pane. Behind the display window are - not a group of rare monkeys from Sumatra - but seven women, two of them reputedly recently arrived from Anatolia. The two new ones are very young, only clad in underwear and seated at a little distance from the old inhabitants: Five fat women in a large, stained sofa. They are smoking cigarettes, talk on a mobile, watch TV, or chat. They are ugly and look unhealthy. The two new girls are not talking.
Outside a young fellow in jeans and leather jacket gets his courage up and steps through the door. He approaches a fully dressed Madame, white-haired and wearing something reminiscent of a golden crown. He points to one of the new arrivals, a very slim girl with see-through underwear and jet black hair. He places some money notes on a table.
The girl takes the lead, and he follows her up some stone steps in the back of the room. Exactly eight minutes later the girl returns. Her customer comes right after her, walks out the door without a word, pushes his way through the doorway of Ankara's Genelev - the biggest brothel in the Turkish capital.
Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that has officially legalized prostitution. And no other country has systematized it like Turkey. Round about 100.000 women are registered as prostitutes in Genelevs - a term that literally means ""public house"" - all over the country.
The attitude is very pragmatic: Prostitution will exist under any circumstances no matter what the authorities do. Therefor it may as well be public and controlled to suppress the spread of all sorts of genital and social maladies from gonorrhea to aids to drugs and pimping.
The system has developed into a nationwide trade in humans, a system controlled by the state and creating fortunes for private owners and the State. In a report Anti-Slavery International (ASI) has called it modern-day slavery.
In Ankara the brothel is situated right below the Citadel and the Old Town. It is not easy to find because the law takes pains to specify that a Genelev must not be visible from ""main streets, places of entertainment, places of assembling, educational and religious institutions or public authorities.""
The Genelev consists of four small streets that are completely surrounded by a high wall, as demanded by the law. The entrance is a single iron door, guarded by three uniformed police officers the Thursday afternoon when I was there. Several hundreds of men pass in and out. They show their ID cards to the officers before they take a look at the girls behind glass windows in numbered houses: Komissyon 1 to 32. Slender men of small stature move back and forth bringing tea, bread and cigarettes to the women. The three story houses - old and dilapidated - are full of little rooms where the women live and work.
After the initial surprise over how openly everything happens here my wonder mostly derives from the minimal time with which the transactions in Komissyon 14 are carried through. I met a young fellow with mustache, mobile telephone and bordeaux colored jacket at a primitive small café on the corner of the second and third street.
He explained: ""You will have to pay between five and ten million lira (13 to 26 US dollars) for about ten minutes.""
For what? - ""Sex!""
But how can you do that, you'll at least have to undress ...? ""No, you don't undress,"" he said as if this was a quite obvious thing.
So the public brothel system is without any illusions whatsoever. Nobody puts up any pretense, neither the women withering behind the window panes, nor the men debating the goods on display. The least illusory thing here is the kind of sex for sale. It is clearly not perceived as anything but a physical exercise.
On this Thursday alone hundreds of ten minute deals are struck, making the Genelev system one of the nation's biggest money machines. Each year the Turkish state publishes the names of the top 100 tax payers. The press pays close attention to this list. For several years an 83 years old Armenian, Matilt Manokian, the man who transformed several brothels into an enormous business empire, has figured among the three top names.
I paid a visit to Feride Acar, a sociologist at the university in Ankara.
She said: ""This system derives from the Osmannic empire. Only in those days it was hidden. When Turkey was founded as a secular state the brothel system was thoroughly regulated and perceived as very innovative and modern. The demand for sex is still enormous because Turkey has remained a deeply conservative society. In principle only the educated elite has access to sex before marriage - and outside marriage for that matter. Ordinary men, the lower middle and underclass men, go to the Genelev.""
The State cashes in fortunes in taxes. Brothel owners get protection from the State. The men get sex. But what do the women get?
There is a Genelev in every town, and they are often quite large. The largest, in Izmir, includes 200 houses and circa 2000 resident women. The police officer on duty Thursday afternoon in Ankara explained to me that 350 women live here on a steady basis.
Prostitution is regulated by law number 1593, dealing with ""general hygiene"". In the April 1961 issue of the law periodical of the Turkish Republic, and in a supplement issue from 1973, I found a decree entitled ""Statutes concerning prostitutes, the rules under which brothels must subordinate, and the prevention of transmittable venereal diseases related to prostitution"". The law has no less than 126 paragraphs, and it is enforced in very perfunctory manner and with a firm hand.
Each region has a police squad for ""public morality"" entrusted with the duty of finding and registering prostitutes. The Moral Squad works under ""total secrecy"" and keeps under surveillance women suspected of working independently. If the suspicion is proven correct the authorities must first find out what drove the woman into misery and then consider the possibilities of bringing her back to a ""decent life"".
If this fails, and if the woman is older than 21 ""the rules concerning prostitution are put into effect"". This means that she will be registered as a hooker and forced to move into a Genelev. Her normal ID card is revoked and replaced with the ID card of a prostitute, with her name, professional name, age, place of birth, home address, and working place.
The description in the law is reminiscent of the special rules of the 19th century for the isolation of the mentally ill. And since the fallen women have been taken into custody, they may as well make themselves useful. At many places the police is so thorough in enforcing this law that women who have made money by prostitution just a few times risk being put in a Genelev.
Via a personal connection I met Leyla who has worked as a prostitute in several towns, mostly in a brothel in Izmir. She is 38, and she looks like she is 60. She stopped at the age 35 after 20 years. My friend translated her words for me.
She is old, she said: ""The average life expectancy for women in the brothels is not much over 40.""
""What do you die from?"" I asked.
""Everything. Diseases. We are worn out. Many commit suicide,"" she said.
""How is a typical working day in a Genelev?""
""On the hardest days you work 12 hours. You have a minimum of ten men a day. One a busy day you may have up to 60. The owner decides."" - Brothel owners in a Genelev are often former prostitutes.
Leyla explained that the prostitutes keep 40 percent plus tippings and give the rest to the owner - ""to Madame"". ""It is good pay. It is steady pay. Better than working in a factory.""
She said that most of the women live in the brothel, it has always been like that. But many, especially those with children, have their own apartments. ""They deceive their families into believing that they work outside their home as housemaids.""
""Who cares for their children while they are working?""
Before I was thrown out of the Ankara brothel by a stern policeman, a nice colleague of his showed me a file with photos of each woman, her age, address if she lives on the outside, and her working name: Rana, Daisy, Sally ... They are between 20 and 36 years old.
The brothel is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. The women has one day off a week. A few live outside, and if they do not show up the police will come for them.
According to Leyla and Ferice Acar there are two ""kinds"" of women in the brothels: Girls who have run away from their villages with a boyfriend. Bad luck strikes, they loose both virginity and boyfriend and cannot under any circumstances go back to the village. They start out as free lance whores and get caught by the Moral Squad.
The other kind of prostitutes are divorced women or widows who cannot provide for themselves and their children.
But Leyla confirmed also a persistent allegation voiced among others by ASI: That Turkey in the end permits a widespread slave trade.
According to the rules a woman must always have the possibility of leaving a Genelev if she so wishes. A private citizen who forces a woman into a brothel may get from one to three years in prison. If the citizen is her brother or parent the punishment is more severe. But there is so much money in the system that these sanctions are seldom used. A young woman can be sold to a Genelev for an amount between 860 and 4270 US dollars.
According to Leyla about half of the women she knew in the brothels had been sold by ""men in their lives"". Very few were there voluntarily. Leyla's best friend was 18 when she was invited to a restaurant and intoxicated with alcohol. She woke up in a Genelev as a registered whore.
""Once you're inside it is near impossible to escape. It is very simple: There is only one exit door, and anyways you immediately build up a huge depth,"" Leyla said.
She talked of the system employed by brothel owners to hold on to the women. The primary reason that so many of them are stuck for years is that sign contracts they cannot look through and which compel them to pay rent and charges to managers for cleaning, stamps for health examinations etceteras.
To many Turks the nation's brothels are not all that bad. Another female sociologist, Prof. Ayse Salzmann from Ankara, admitted to me that ""horrifying breaches of human rights"" are taking place. But she maintained that public control keeps at bay the sort of crime connected with prostitution in Western countries and the spread of aids and other diseases.
Every brothel is in contact with a clinic that performs obligatory examinations of the health of the prostitutes every second week. If a woman has attracted a virus she is hospitalized for ten days for treatment - under strict limitations on visits and telephone calls. If she has acquired HIV the police is the first to be informed - before she is.
HIV positive women are usually sent away without treatment or counselling.
At the clinic in Istanbul a doctor said to me: ""We are psychologists, medical doctors, nurses, waiters and prison guards - all at the same time.""
He explained that venereal diseases and aids cannot be kept from spreading because many prostitutes bribe the police to avoid hospitalization. They would loose the income of an entire day.
Leyla succeeded in getting out because she got married and her husband paid her debts. At intervals Turkish newspapers publish happy stories of women who have been ""saved"" by a man.
To Leyla the system itself, its incredible cynicism and suppressive nature, is not the worst. It is not the work either that is the worst part of it, she stressed again and again, ""not sex 20 times in one day."" No, the worst is the total rejection from the rest of society when a woman at long last gets out.
""It is impossible to keep your profession a secret. We are unable to get inside society again. When we are inside a Genelev, we are outside Turkey. When we are outside, we are not humans but pariahs,"" she said angrily.
There are many examples that public security has formally been abolished with respect to prostitutes. Take for instance the punishment for rape. It is much smaller when the victim is a prostitute than if she is any other woman. Children of prostitutes cannot be employed at high positions in the army or police, and they cannot be married to anyone holding such positions.
Feride Acar explained to me:
""Prostitutes are always seen as scum. If a whore gets away from a Genelev and finds a different job, her past will resurface. She is registered right, left and middle. Her employer will sooner or later compare her data with the police records, and then she is fired.""
Things have become a little better lately, though. In Istanbul they have stopped registering ""private"" hookers, not so much due to respect for the woman than because of the fact that the new Islamist city mayors will have nothing at all to do with prostitution. And in a growing number of Kurdish towns the police refuses to register prostitutes and tries to make it easier to leave the brothels.
Still only one percent of the prostitutes return to society, at the most.
The law on prostitution in fact says that the women must be helped to ""abandon their corrupt life"" if they ""renounce prostitution"". But here aren't any public institutions to help them.
To Feride Acar the answer is obvious:
""The system wasn't made for the women but for the men. Turkish males are willing to use the brothels. It's convenient, inexpensive, and nobody really looks down upon men who buy sex. And then there are women of all types and shapes who are under health control, venereal diseases are suppressed etc. It really is convenient. - On the other hand most men hate the prostitutes. They conceive them as polluted even though it is obviously themselves who pollute them.""
Still Acar ended up introducing light and shade into her words:
""Of course the system is horrible and shameful. But as a sociologist I have to reconsider it and ask what would happen of there wasn't any open and inexpensive access to prostitution. Would the number of rapes make a significant rise? And do remember that the trade in women in the West is just as horrible. In Europe women end up in situations of dependency like here, with enormous debt to pimps and gangs, drug addicted etc. what is worst? If the standard of living in Turkish brothels was much higher, if we treated the women as human beings, I might prefer our system to your chaos.""
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