Content warning: sexual violence
My journey to feminism began with what I now call my “luckiest mistake” in a bookstore.
Growing up in Turkey, I was extremely privileged to receive a private education in a school where everyone was raised with modern, Westernized ideologies. I lived in a very sheltered bubble where most people were relatively open-minded and respectful toward differences, whether it be gender, race or sexual preference, so I never witnessed much discrimination in my immediate community.
In Turkey, my experiences with sexism were based solely on the “minor inconveniences” my girlfriends and I begrudgingly endured on a daily basis. Women are exceedingly cautious, from feeling unable to wear miniskirts on public transport to sending a photo of the license plates of every cab we get into to our friends, just in case. We would easily overlook these obstacles, thinking, “It’s unfair, but it’s just the way things are.”
But always turning a blind eye was difficult.
On the Turkish news, I would see cases of femicide or rape and quickly change the channel. In my mind, these unlucky women were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and these killers or rapists were evil people whom I would probably never encounter if I stayed in the safety of my privileged bubble.
Still, despite my attempts at rationalization or avoidance, my fears and worries that I was never completely safe as a woman in Turkey persisted. I imagined a happier life at UC Berkeley in the States; I would be free without fear.
Up to that point, my idealized perception of women’s freedom in the West, especially in the States, consisted only of what I had seen in American romance dramas. The female protagonists wore the prettiest dresses and shamelessly made out with men in restaurant bathrooms with no consequences: no judgments, no biases, complete independence.
But my perceptions of my life in the United States would soon be challenged.
In my third year of high school, my parents and I went on a trip to London. Naturally, I spent most of my time in the bookstores, admiring the diverse selection of English literature I would not have found in Turkey. It was here that I made my luckiest mistake.
I bought a book about misogyny in Western cultures, mistakenly thinking it was about monogamous relationships. Only after I had bought it, a Google search showed me the limits of my English vocabulary: Monogamy and misogyny were different words. But, enjoying my souvenir, I kept reading anyway.
The book popped my bubble, introducing me to a harsh reality I had been spared from all my life: The West wasn’t as perfect as it seemed. Nowhere was. For the first time, I could not look away; I had to acknowledge misogyny as a universal problem, not a mere inconvenience specific to my Eastern society. After reading about misogyny, I grew more disturbed by the instances of sexism in my own life.
I wondered how many instances of misogyny I had overlooked before that day. Maybe my bubble was not so safe after all. And if even I felt this way, what of other girls, those without books in their hands to guide them? What of those outside my bubble?
The door this book opened for me has remained open ever since. Over the years, I became exceedingly involved in the feminist movement and continued educating myself with feminist literature. Even in the United States, I witnessed many instances of misogyny; women were catcalled, insulted and taken advantage of all the same, which served as proof that misogynistic behavior was a universal problem. With the start of my life in the States, the last pieces of my already-fractured American Dream completely shattered.
My privileged, “modern” lifestyle had fooled me, and perhaps many others, into thinking feminism wasn’t needed anymore. Convinced that violent assaults were unfortunate, isolated incidents that didn’t affect me, I was effectively accepting sexism as the norm, contributing to the normalization of misogyny and becoming a part of the problem. In retrospect, I feel ashamed.
Yet among all these painful realizations, I also found hope. I was introduced to a community of feminist activists: strong women who stood up against sexism every day. I found a cause worth fighting for and a passion fueled by my desire to do better and to amend my past ignorance. I started calling myself a feminist, loudly, openly and with pride.
My journey is far from over. The more I educate myself about feminism, the more I realize how complex the fight for gender equality is. Everyone has their own ideas on sexism, feminism and misogyny in the modern day, but we all have a responsibility to continuously educate ourselves and change our perspectives for the better. Mine keep changing, and that’s OK — it should be. It’s a beautiful but scary journey that I’m on; it has its ups and downs, but as long as I keep exploring and seeking out information, I know I’m on the right path.
Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.