Historically, prostitution has always existed in Istanbul, which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire and is situated on the Bosphorus Strait between the Black Sea and Marmara Sea, but the most salient feature of sold sex there may well be the silence that often surrounds it. Unlike in many other European countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the issue of prostitution was never incorporated into vocal and influential feminist movements as a symbol of the oppression of women in Turkey. Of course, while there was a burgeoning women’s movement in Istanbul in the late Ottoman Empire and early Republic of Turkey (which was founded in 1923), and while there were isolated calls for the abolition of regulated prostitution, women’s lobbying power over state policy did not materialize until quite recently and even now it is limited; and, as sex work in Turkey has long been a taboo issue, an ngo dedicated to the support of sex workers was not founded until the mid-2000s. Consequently, since it is largely such organizations that carry out research on prostitution, there is a relative lack of source material available for the researcher for more recent times regarding sold sex. In academia, there has been a similar silence; only in the past five years or so has the subject begun to receive scholarly attention from historians. Additionally, the state committee responsible for overseeing the system of licensed sex work in Istanbul does not share its data for the most part and there is a lack of governmental transparency, particularly under the current conservative ruling party which is self-avowedly dedicated to promoting “family values” over women’s (and workers’) rights.

Notably, women’s movements in Turkey today, still struggling as they are to acquire large-scale legitimacy in the eyes of the public, have also been reluctant to vocally address such a taboo issue, and even within these movements there is some ambivalence arising from traditions of “virtue” which are intimately bound up with conceptualizations of female sexuality. In recent years, this shroud of silence surrounding sex work has begun to fall away, however, even if slightly, and increasing numbers of women’s groups and the transgender community, including sex workers themselves, have begun to raise their voices. This was largely made possible by the efforts of two sex workers, Ayşe Tükrücü and Saliha Ermez, who attempted to run for parliament in 2007; while their bid was unsuccessful, they did help bring sex work into the open as an issue demanding attention.

Taking into consideration these limitations, this overview has drawn upon the material available in the Ottoman archive in Istanbul for the earlier period of Istanbul, and also the growing number of studies which have been conducted utilizing those sources. The Republican archive in Ankara, which contains far less information, was also consulted, as well as the archive of the League of Nations in Geneva, as the League’s Body of Experts carried out studies on Istanbul due to the fact that in the early twentieth century, Istanbul had acquired a global reputation, deservedly or not, as a major centre for prostitution. A survey of Turkish newspapers provided further materials regarding the early years of the republic when the regulated system was adopted from its Ottoman predecessor, and recent studies on sex work in contemporary Istanbul were also consulted.

For the sake of clarity, this overview of prostitution in Istanbul is roughly divided into three time periods: 1600–1880, 1881–1950, and 1951-present. The first time period represents the era prior to the time when the Ottoman authorities instituted a system of regulated prostitution, a period best defined as prohibitionist marked by periods of tolerance and suppression. The next time period bridges the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and represents the era in which sold sex in Istanbul was brought under state control via a system of regulation. In the final time period, large-scale internal migration and the opening up of the Turkish economy to global capital had a large impact on the unfolding of prostitution in Istanbul, and in recent years there has been increased agitation for recognition of the rights of sex workers. This shift has gone hand in hand with government attempts to quietly dismantle the state-regulated system of prostitution that has been in place for over a century. This tri-bloc time frame, while artificial in the sense that changes do not happen so abruptly, nonetheless makes it possible to identify and examine moments of continuity and rupture as regards prostitution in Istanbul over roughly the last 400 years.

Disciplining “Vice” in the City of Sultans

Prostitution in Ottoman Istanbul, which was a bustling multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, underwent periods of suppression and toleration, but it was a regular feature of the urban landscape and was carried out by women from all religious backgrounds. Under the Sultanic Code of Law promulgated in 1530, in the early years of the Ottoman Empire prostitution was subject to what could be called a “sin tax” which required that the “gypsies of Istanbul, Edirne Plovdiv and Sofia pay a fixed tax of one hundred aqches per month for each of their women who perform acts contrary to Sharia [Islamic law].”1 Sharia strictly forbade sexual relations outside of marriage, so this tax indicated a tacit recognition that these women, as prostitutes, were regularly engaging in acts that ran contrary to theological doctrine and making money from their clients. This practice would soon be discontinued, however;2 a code of law for prostitution was introduced stating that such “undesirable” women could be chastised and then banished from a town if they did not correct their behaviour.3 In this way, even though a prostitute would have been culpable as having committed fornication (zinā), which under the Ottoman system of kanun law entailed the payment of a fine, she was in fact a separate legal subject bound to regulations that differed from those that applied to “virtuous” women who committed adultery; if a woman who was not a prostitute was found guilty of engaging in sexual relations outside the confines of marriage, she was technically subject to a monetary fine, not banished.4 This blurring of the status of prostitutes thus granted them a form of recognition, and exempting prostitutes from pecuniary punishment made it possible for the authorities to avoid being placed in the morally awkward position of “taxing” prostitution. This is not to say, however, that the presence of prostitutes in Istanbul was broadly tolerated. As indicated by court records, throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, prostitutes were regularly banished from Istanbul to the interior of Anatolia or islands in the Mediterranean, and imprisonment was also used as a form of discipline, in addition to capital punishment, although executions were quite rare.5

The ownership of domestic slaves, which was common practice among the wealthy and elite in Ottoman society,6 was also implicated in practices of prostitution in Istanbul. Under Islamic law, men were entitled to an unlimited number of female slaves, with whom they were entitled to have sexual relations, although religious law encouraged slave owners to eventually free them and treat them well; it should be pointed out, however, that women could own female but not male slaves, while men could own both. On wealthy Ottoman estates, female slaves served as domestic servants, maids, and nurses, and also as concubines,7 and while sex between a master and female slave was viewed as legitimate, the procuring of slaves for the purpose of prostitution was expressly forbidden by Islamic law.8 One such practice was the purchase of a slave at a certain price for the purpose of sexual gratification; the buyer would then sell that slave back to the owner at a slightly lower price, resulting in a profit for the original seller. The Ottoman authorities were aware that slave traders in Istanbul, and other Ottoman cities as well, were engaging in the prostitution of slaves, and guilds were charged with ensuring that it did not occur.9

It was illegal to sell Muslim men or women as slaves, and although Ottoman Istanbul was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious city populated by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it was forbidden for Muslim women to marry or engage in sexual affairs with non-Muslim men. Contrarily, it was permitted for Muslimmen to marry non-Muslim women. Nonetheless, it was well-known that Muslim women were involved in prostitution in pre-regulatory Ottoman Istanbul, often working out of their homes and at night in public spaces such as parks and cemeteries,10 although efforts were made to ensure that confessional lines were not crossed. While local religious (Muslim, Christian and Jewish) and civil authorities were entrusted with overseeing the morality of Istanbul’s neighbourhoods, archival evidence indicates that local residents of different religious backgrounds sometimes came together to petition authorities about the presence of prostitutes, particularly when they had crossed confessional lines with their clients.11 It should be pointed out that temporary marriage (nikah mut‘ah, a temporary contract of marriage which can last from a few minutes to years) was generally not practised in Ottoman territories, as Sunni Muslims believe it was abolished in the early years of Islam. In Shi’a Islamic belief, however, it is permitted, and has been used in sold sex exchanges in Shi’a areas such as Iran, where it is referred to as sigheh and can be used to “legitimize” paid sexual encounters within the sanctity of marriage.

Although comprehensive education for girls did not exist until the early twentieth century, at which time it was still accessible only for the elites, some Muslim and non-Muslim women were involved in work and business in early modern Istanbul, but on a rather small scale, so it is likely that selling sex was one of the only options for lower-class women in times of financial duress. The Ottoman craft guilds were closed to women for the most part, but lower- and middle-class women did engage to some extent in cottage industries while wealthier women made investments and were involved in real estate transactions.12 However, because court records concerning prostitutes in this period often do not provide much personal information about the women themselves, it is difficult to know if and how they were employed prior to taking up sex work. The scant evidence available suggests that widows, perhaps for lack of another source of income, may have turned to prostitution, and archival documentation indicates that the streetwalkers of Istanbul in the eighteenth century were often homeless women, most likely migrants from rural areas.13

The early eighteenth century was a tumultuous period in the Ottoman Empire, marked by extensive banditry in Anatolia and tax farming practices which forced peasants off the land, and large numbers of the dispossessed began migrating to cities. The extent of urban migration reached such an alarming rate that imperial orders were issued which forbade men and women, whether married or not, from moving to the capital, and women had to obtain permission to travel to Istanbul for business or to see relatives.14 In addition, single male labourers and the unemployed were rounded up every few years and banished from the city, but despite these precautions, the population of Istanbul continued to grow throughout the eighteenth century.15

As the end of the eighteenth century drew to a close, war broke about between the Ottoman Empire and Russia and Austria, resulting in large numbers of Ottoman troops and naval officers being stationed in Istanbul. Aware that this was leading to an increase in prostitution, authorities conducted raids and imprisoned women who were suspected prostitutes. Similarly, houses for single male labourers and sailors located in the district of Üsküdar, on the Anatolian shores of Istanbul, were occasionally raided in 1790, resulting in the imprisonment of women caught engaging in sold sex. It was not only military personnel and workers, however, who were known clients of female prostitutes; archival evidence indicates that students at Islamic theological schools in Istanbul also brought prostitutes to their residences.16 In the later years of the eighteenth century, authorities began pinning the blame for the repeated Ottoman losses to the Russians on the moral degradation of society, and the spread of prostitution in the capital city was seen as one aspect of this. Efforts were made to eradicate prostitution in Istanbul, and royal edicts were issued which sought to restrict the public presence of women and to strictly regulate the clothing they wore in public.17 This wariness concerning the presence of women in urban areas coincided with economic strains as well; inflation levels had increased as the result of debasements of the currency, leading to a sharp spike in prices and widespread poverty.18

Prostitution in early modern Istanbul took numerous forms. Some Muslim women working alone solicited in public areas at night; women also worked together, bringing clients (often janissaries and sailors) to the rooms they rented.19 Not all women worked independently, however, and both Muslim and non-Muslim men and women were involved in organizing prostitution. These included women working independently as madams, as well as imams and non-Muslim tavern owners working as pimps. The punishment for procuring often took the form of banishment for both women and Muslim religious figures.20

During periods of moral fervour, persecution of sold sex did result in the occasional execution of prostitutes.21 In the tumultuous years of the late eighteenth century, it was decided that merely banishing prostitutes would not put an end to the practice in Istanbul, and the authorities opted to take more drastic measures. Five well-known prostitutes were drowned, and the bodies of three of them were hung up at different locations in the city as a warning. Other known prostitutes were then forced to repent, and many of them were banished from the city. This draconian approach achieved limited results, however, and despite continued raids and banishment, women continued to clandestinely engage in sold sex.22 Occasionally prostitutes were imprisoned, particularly during religious holidays; records indicate that Muslim prostitutes were sometimes arrested and placed under the supervision of local imams.23

While foundations to support the poor existed in early modern and modern Ottoman Istanbul,24 an organized system of charitable societies providing support for the “rehabilitation” of women who sold sex was never founded, nor does it seem that female prostitutes in Istanbul were ever organized as a guild. It should be noted, however, that not only women engaged in prostitution in early modern Istanbul; the taverns owned by non-Muslim Ottoman citizens, and likely coffee shops as well, were also fronts for the prostitution of young men.25

Throughout the nineteenth century, Istanbul continued to grow, and so did the city’s prostitution “problem”. In 1859 the Grand Vizier issued a mandate stipulating prison terms of forty-eight hours to three months or banishment from three to six months for individuals caught engaging in prostitution.26 Despite this effort, prostitution continued to proliferate, and the municipality began considering other options to limit the proliferation of sold sex in the streets of Istanbul.

Regulation and the “Sick Man of Europe”

The Ottoman nineteenth century witnessed pervasive transformations as the state sought to reform its military, centralize state authority, and transform social structures. These reforms were aimed at maintaining the waning integrity of the empire, precipitated by Ottoman military losses in the Balkans and Crimea, coupled with internal disarray and separatist nationalist movements. The rapid expansion of state medical institutions was part of modernizing efforts, leading to the founding of numerous hospitals throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.27 In Istanbul, increased interaction between Ottoman and European physicians fuelled the development of hospitals and medical facilities and the dissemination of medical practices based on western models in Ottoman territories, including the regulated system of prostitution. In 1878 the first move towards initiating regulation in Istanbul took place under the guidance of non-Muslim municipal authorities in a rather Europeanized quarter of the city,28 and in 1880, after an experimental phase, the plan was given full royal approval and the authorities began licensing brothels.29

The law did not provide a clear definition of prostitutes, but when it was re-drafted in 1915, a definition was included: “A prostitute is a woman who offers herself for the pleasure of others and has relations with numerous men for the purpose of monetary profit.”30 Until 1914, however, Muslim women could not be registered as prostitutes,31 and Muslim authorities took little interest in the issue when Christian and Jewish women took up the practice.32 Investigations carried out during and after World War i indicated that large numbers of Muslim women were in fact clandestinely engaging in prostitution, at times even perhaps to a greater extent than their Christian and Jewish counterparts. The presence of over 50,000 Entente troops in Istanbul during the occupation of the city33 from 1918 to 1923 contributed to the proliferation of sold sex, and a red-light district was opened on the Anatolian side “to prevent foreign soldiers from harassing virtuous women.”34 The British, French, Italian, and American troops stationed in Istanbul were barred from brothels where Muslim women worked, but there were over fifty bars in which over 200 young women, both registered and unregistered prostitutes, were employed, and these were often frequented by Entente soldiers. It was reported that the young women working in these bars often ended up being registered.35 Although the authorities sought to segregate female Muslim prostitutes from non-Muslim men, it appears that women themselves were blurring confessional lines. An editorial dating from 1923 in an Ottoman daily newspaper noted that some Greek prostitutes in Istanbul were donning the veil and posing as Muslim prostitutes because this allowed them to charge higher prices, purportedly because Muslim women were seen as being more “exotic” due to the taboo on Muslim women entering into sexual relations with men of other religious backgrounds.36

This segregation of prostitutes along religious lines was reflected in the moral geographies of the city; registered Christian and Jewish prostitutes worked on the European side of Istanbul, while Muslim women worked in the licensed brothels of the Anatolian districts of the city, which were closed to non-Muslim men and were opened after 1914, when Muslim prostitutes started being registered. Of course, women working clandestinely transgressed these geographies, frustrating municipal efforts to create clearly delineated “confessional” districts of vice. State records indicate that prior to the outbreak of war, police took Muslim women into custody when they were caught engaging in sold sex alongside non-Muslim women, particularly in the predominantly Christian and Jewish district of Beyoğlu,37 and non-Muslim women were arraigned for employing Muslim women in their brothels.38 During these years, the cup government had also issued a regulation concerning the operations of hospitals in Istanbul which stipulated that the Beyoğlu Women’s Hospital was to be reserved for the medical treatment of non-Muslim prostitutes and Muslim prostitutes were to be taken to the Haseki Women’s Hospital.39

At this point, it will be helpful to briefly discuss how the Capitulations impacted the Ottoman government’s ability to police prostitution.40 Under the Capitulations, foreign citizens were not subject to Ottoman laws on prostitution and the local police were powerless to close down or regulate brothels owned by foreigners; also, they did not have the authority to arrest or prosecute individuals involved in helping women secure work as prostitutes.41 As an example of this, in 1876 the Ottoman authorities arrested a number of foreign women for prostitution and intended to deport them back to their home countries by ship. The foreign consuls intervened and forced the Ottoman authorities to release the women.42 By the early twentieth century, Istanbul had become stigmatized as a centre for the “traffic in women”, and only with the outbreak of World War i was the Ottoman government able to abolish the Capitulations and take more stringent measures in the policing of sold sex.

Numerous investigations were carried out by foreign organizations concerning the “international traffic in white women” in Istanbul. These efforts were led by leading feminists such as Bertha Pappenheim and Eugene Simon, as well as such organizations as the Association for the Protection of Young Women and the Jewish Hilfsverein and B’nai B’rith societies.43 It was argued that by the early twentieth century “trafficking” to Istanbul served local demand as well as transport to the brothels in Latin America, northern Egypt, and further east. As a major port city linking the Mediterranean and Black Sea, Istanbul was a crucial transit point for ship traffic coming from southern Russia (particularly Odessa), Romania, and Bulgaria onwards to points south and west. The claim was made that it was primarily men who were involved in this transport ring but that women took part as well, German Jews from Galicia and Bukovia, areas from which many Jewish women migrated to Istanbul, along with women from southern Hungary.44 While there was a significant number of Ashkenazi Jews, often migrants and refugees from eastern Europe, who ran brothels in Istanbul, they were by no means the majority, and many people involved in prostitution were in fact Ottoman citizens, Muslim or otherwise.45

Beginning in 1910, the Ottoman authorities, aware that increasing numbers of Muslim women had begun engaging in prostitution in Istanbul for lack of another source of income, attempted to launch initiatives aimed at providing destitute (Muslim) women with employment.46 These efforts, however, sought to prevent Muslim women from taking up prostitution rather than providing assistance for those who had “fallen”, as the common perception was that their “virtue” had already been “corrupted”.47 While debates ensued about labour rights for Muslim women, it was actually the fact that Muslim women were engaging in prostitution that sparked initiatives to incorporate (“virtuous”) Muslim women into the workforce. There was not an organized movement to push for labour equality, however, so women’s wages remained far below those of men, often 50 per cent less,48 holding back women’s socio-economic emancipation. Even by 1920, some occupations were closed to women; to cite an example, it was forbidden for Muslim women to work on stage as actors, as this profession was deemed “unfit” for “honourable” women.49 A survey conducted in the same year in Istanbul indicated that widowed Muslims in Istanbul were, in contrast with their non-Muslim (Greek, Armenian, and Jewish) counterparts, less educated, had the lowest earnings, and were the least healthy.50

Large numbers of Muslim refugees flooded Istanbul in the wake of Ottoman losses in the Balkans in the early twentieth century, and the government was financially unable to settle all of them elsewhere. As a result, large numbers of Muslim women were left without a means of income; in twelve provinces of the empire, 30 per cent of the female population was comprised of widows.51 Displacement due to war, as well as migrations, deportations, and the persecution of Greeks and Armenians in Anatolia led to destitution among non-Muslim subjects in the capital as well.52 Furthermore, tens of thousands of White Russian refugees also settled in the city in 1920.53 Opportunities for work, however, were few and far between.

Industrialization in Istanbul was minimal compared with other cities in western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and small-scale workshops run by men tended to dominate.54 Nonetheless, newly emergent industries did create opportunities for women to work, but it was primarily non-Muslim women who began to participate in the economy via factory labour55 due to the fact that such employment was often seen as being below the status of Muslim women. During the war, however, a small number of Muslim women did take up employment in the fabric industry and in sewing houses, the internal spaces of which were often segregated by gender,56 but large swathes of the female population were left without recourse to avenues of work that offered competitive wages.

The Founding of the Republic and Perpetuation of Licensed Prostitution

Studies carried out in 1919/1920 in Istanbul claimed that there were approximately 2,000 registered prostitutes in the city, 60 per cent of whom were non-Muslim (Greek, Jewish, and Armenian) and 40 per cent Muslim,57 out of a total population of around one million.58 There was also a small number of non-Ottoman citizens employed in the state-licensed brothels, the majority of whom were Russian (forty-three women in total), and a few German, Italian, Romanian, Bulgarian, French, and Polish women.59 Over time, after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the number of Muslim women employed as registered prostitutes increased, and there was a corresponding decrease in the number of non-Muslim registered women. This trend towards a “Muslim-Turkification” of sold sex in Istanbul in the 1920s and ‘30s paralleled large-scale efforts undertaken to “Turkify” the nation. In the late Ottoman and early republican eras, the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish populations of Istanbul declined sharply as the result of nationalist policies aiming for the homogenization of Turkish society; the system of registered prostitution remained in place, however, and, over time, Muslim women became the majority in the state-licensed brothels. Under pressure from organizations such as the League of Nations, which was undertaking efforts to curtail the “international traffic” in women, the number of foreign women employed in the licensed brothels in Istanbul also decreased as the government sought to reassure the international community that Turkey was not a haven for “traffickers” and was not employing foreigners in state-sanctioned brothels, which the League had identified as a “leading culprit” in the “trafficking of women”.60 By the 1930s, Turkish state law mandated that non-citizens could not be employed as registered prostitutes in Turkey, and henceforth foreign women caught engaging in sold sex were deported, just as they are today.

While there are no statistics available concerning the education levels of women engaged in prostitution in late Ottoman and early republican Istanbul, it is possible to infer that few had attended school; while education for girls in the Ottoman Empire became increasingly available from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, this was largely reserved for the children of the wealthy elite. Although more women received at least a primary education after the founding of the republic, by 1935 the national average for women’s literacy was still below 10 per cent,61 and of the nearly 40,000 villages in Turkey, only about 5,000 had schools.62

In 1925, investigators for the League of Nations visited Istanbul and interviewed local officials, prostitutes, and brothel owners as part of a global study on the trafficking in women. It was reported that women were forcibly registered as prostitutes if the police caught them three times in the act of trying to sell sex and that most women working in licensed brothels were overseen by a pimp or madam. It was also noted that many of the women were locked in a debtor system, in which a debtor would “loan” money to prostitutes at extraordinarily high interest rates, making it difficult for the women to pay off their debts. The report stated that although Istanbul was not a major destination for prostitutes, it was a transit point for women travelling from Romania and Poland to colonial Egypt and Syria, as well as South and Central America. In 1925, it was reported that there were 241 licensed houses in Istanbul, the majority of which were owned by Turkish citizens; thirty-seven of the houses were reserved solely for Muslim women (and hence solely for Muslim men).63

As indicated in a study carried out by a Turkish journalist in 1928, the number of registered houses had decreased to 110, and the segregation of prostitutes by religious affiliation had begun to fall away. Women working in higher-class houses did not solicit on the street, but less privileged women would approach clients outside and bring them to their rented rooms. State law required that owners of brothels be female and stipulated that women could voluntarily apply to be registered or be forcibly registered by the police if repeatedly caught engaging in prostitution. The study noted that aside from becoming the owner of a brothel, the future prospects for prostitutes were bleak, and that most registered women, since they did not have the right to collect retirement, eventually became beggars. It was reported that the majority of women employed in state-licensed houses were from the lower classes, having worked as waitresses or servants, or had been previously convicted of petty crimes. Also, the majority of women in the study were single mothers whose fathers had passed away, and most of them had a male “friend” who lived off her earnings.64

In the early years of the republic, violence committed by clients against prostitutes occurred regularly, often taking place in brothels; it should also be noted, however, that there were reports of violence perpetrated by prostitutes against their clients as well.65 A report issued by the League of Nations in 1938 provided some details about the personal lives of women employed at state-sanctioned brothels; while most of the data concerned women in Ankara, it is likely that the registered women in Istanbul had similar backgrounds. The report stated that the majority of women had not attended school, had never been employed or had worked as domestic servants, and had begun engaging in prostitution under the age of 23. Also, the report noted that all of the registered women in Istanbul had contracted a venereal disease within six years of working, and that all of the women who had married were divorced.66

As in early modern Istanbul, it appears that there were virtually no organizations seeking to “rehabilitate” or provide services for prostitutes in the late Ottoman and early republican eras, and as discussed above, state-led efforts to provide employment for women were almost exclusively off-limits to women who had previously engaged in prostitution.67 In 1921, a Prostitution Prevention Society was founded under the guidance of the foreign ambassadors in Istanbul, but it does not appear to have had a lasting existence or impact on sold sex in Istanbul.68 A handful of Turkish feminists did protest the state regulation of brothels in newspaper columns,69 and the Turkish Women’s League, which was created in 1923 after the newly founded Turkish government refused permission for the opening of a women’s political party, asserted that one of its founding tenets was the abolition of the regulated system. Under government pressure, however, the League’s efforts would remain limited to social aid projects, and in 1935 the Turkish Women’s League was shut down by the government following the hosting of the annual conference of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, which was held in Istanbul. At the conference, western representatives of the alliance, aware that Turkey maintained a system of licensed prostitution, decried the regulated brothel system, stating that it was the root cause of “trafficking in women”.70

While legislation concerning women in the early years of the republic promoted their increased public presence by encouraging their participation in the labour force, this did not entail increased personal freedoms for women in Turkey in the sense of sexual liberation; strict Islamic sexual mores, with a focus on women’s “sexual purity” have remained strong. Additionally, while there was an active albeit rather small women’s movement in Istanbul in the early years of the republic, it did not have the power to lobby the government; although women were granted municipal suffrage in 1930 and parliamentary suffrage in 1934, this was the result of “state feminism” and not agitation on behalf of women themselves. Likewise, government legislation on prostitution was drafted solely by male politicians; the Penal Code implemented in 1926 diminished the rights of prostitutes on the basis that they were “dishonourable”, and the crimes of rape and kidnapping could be punished 60 per cent less severely if committed against a prostitute.71 This article was repealed in 1990 after successful lobbying by women’s groups.

In 1929, the Ministry of the Interior successfully pushed legislation to eventually eliminate the regulated system. After a three-year experiment with abolition, during which time clandestine prostitution in Istanbul had reportedly proliferated and the economy deteriorated as the result of the global economic depression,72 the government in Ankara argued that public health was under threat because of the spread of venereal diseases and opted to reinstate the system, which remains in place to the present day.73 In 1950, under pressure from the abolitionist World Health Organization, the government once again considered eliminating the licensed system, but in the end decided that public hygiene took precedence, and it was maintained.74

The Other Side of the Turkish “Economic Miracle”

Large-scale internal migration to the urban centres of Turkey, including Istanbul, began in earnest in the 1950s as the result of population growth, the mechanization of agriculture, the development of highways, and industrialization (prompted by an emphasis on isi policies).75 However, migration outpaced job creation, and large numbers of migrants, including women, were forced to take up menial labour positions in cities,76 and some turned to prostitution. By the 1980s, liberal economic policies had led to new patterns of mass consumption in Turkish society, despite the fact that economic prosperity had developed in a lopsided manner; while some profited from the liberalized economy and flaunted their wealth in unprecedented ways, others suffered, as real purchasing power had dropped between 40–60 per cent from 1979 to 1989.77 Reflecting these economic and social trends, reports in Turkish newspapers in the 1980s noted that increasing numbers of Turkish women had begun working as registered and clandestine prostitutes. In 1980 there were roughly 11,000 registered women in Turkey, and by 1985 that number had risen to 15,000.78 The number of licensed brothels in Turkey also increased, from 405 in 1980 to 800 in 1988.79 The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989–91 also contributed to an increase in sold sex in Istanbul as impoverished women took up sex work. By 1990, Ukrainian women represented the largest group of foreign women engaging in prostitution in Istanbul;80 in a study conducted in 2005, the claim was made that Turkey was a major transit point and destination for women looking for sex work, in order of frequency from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Romania.81

Today, sex work is carried out in two ways in Istanbul: on a very small scale, legally in the red-light district, and illegally otherwise. By law, all sex workers employed in the licensed houses must be Turkish citizens and female by birth or by gender reassignment surgery and been issued a pink (female) identity card. The state-licensed brothels are located on a single street in the district of Beyoğlu, the main entertainment hub of the city. The street is accessible by a single gate manned by a police officer, and the houses within are not visible to passers-by. Aside from registered sex workers, women are not allowed to enter the street, and men must show a valid id indicating that they are over the age of 18 before they can pass through the gate; non-Turkish citizens who don’t have a residence permit in Turkey are not allowed to enter. Presently, there are only around 130 women working in the district,82 and this number will continue to go down as the police launch occasional raids on the brothels for supposed infractions of the law; women are either forced to leave as their houses are closed down or leave voluntarily as they grow older and can no longer work. Under the current conservative government, new women are not being registered, despite the fact that there are a reported 6,000 pending applications for registration in the state brothels.83 As with many systems of registration, Istanbul’s legal sex workers are required to undergo tests for venereal diseases twice a week.


The period of employment for registered sex workers is fairly level across the board (Table 11.1), with no large differences in the sizes of the groups who have worked varying periods of time. The majority of women are over 30 years of age (Table 11.2). As for reasons for beginning sex work, some stated that they were forced by someone else, such as a “friend” or relative, and others stated that they voluntarily began working out of financial need. The Ankara Chamber of Commerce indicated in a report on sex workers in Turkey that the main reason women voluntarily engage in sex work is financial necessity, pointing out that women’s wages in Turkey are significantly lower than men’s.85


Although steps to alleviate the situation of women’s employment have been taken in recent years albeit with patchy implementation,87 women’s urban labour market participation in Turkey is quite low at 22 per cent, in contrast to 70 per cent for men. In 2009, the un ranked Turkey 206 out of 215 countries for women’s labour participation.88 Studies have noted that one of the primary factors for women’s low rates of labour participation in Turkey is the traditional priority placed on their roles as mothers and wives, and even women who do work often do so on a part-time basis so that they can fulfil their domestic responsibilities.89 A lack of childcare services also has a prohibitive effect on women’s participation, and a large number of women who are employed but have low levels of education do not have access to social security, meaning that they cannot obtain maternity leave or receive retirement benefits.90 As a number of female sex workers have pointed out, the reason that they resorted to sex work was because they were single mothers who felt that they could not support their children on the wages available to them or found that they were able to make more money through sex work.91 A report compiled by an ngo about prostitution in Turkey also indicated that the majority of registered female sex workers are internal migrants to the city living under financial duress.92

A survey of registered sex workers carried out in 2010 indicated that 66 per cent were single, 8 per cent were married, and 26 per cent were divorced. It should be pointed out that the law forbids married women from working in licensed houses, however, so the women who claimed to be married were most likely involved in a common-law marriage.93 Another study found that over 70 per cent of registered women who had married had done so at the age of 20 or younger, with some married as young as 13 years of age. Many were married off while in their teens; unhappy in marriage, they were unable to return home, as local tradition holds that this is “disgraceful” for the family, so they eventually took up sex work. A significant number of the women working in the Istanbul licensed brothels have children and spend large amounts of money for childcare.94

Education levels among registered sex workers in Istanbul are low, but not entirely. While the numbers vary slightly in different studies, on average about 25 per cent of registered women completed primary school and 10 per cent completed middle school, and although the figures vary from 12 to 23 per cent for high school graduates, at least 7 per cent attended university. Rates of controlled substance and alcohol abuse among registered sex workers are high, as well as use of tobacco.95 Although they should have access to state health insurance as workers, the owners of licensed brothels often do not make full payments for the social security benefits of registered sex workers, so they are not covered by health insurance and are generally unable to retire. If forced to undergo treatment for a venereal disease, they are unable to work for that period and hence unable to look after their children’s needs.96

As of 2011, the rate at the Istanbul licensed brothel for one visit was 35 Turkish lira,97 the equivalent of approximately €15. However, since registered women are often required to purchase food, beverages, and cigarettes at inflated rates in the brothel, in addition to paying for electricity, water, and cleaning, they are forced to accept large numbers of clients to make a profit. Additionally, the owner and manager of the house take a large cut of each payment; this situation, however, seems to have improved starting in the early 2000s, possibly because sex workers began lobbying for improvements in their working conditions. Encounters in the licensed houses of Istanbul tend to be short, lasting 5–10 minutes in general, as the owners of licensed houses think that longer encounters mean that the worker is getting more money and hence attempt to extract more money from the workers.98 In interviews, registered workers have complained that owners harass them about concealing profits and that they are forced to hide their tips upon leaving the house at the end of the day.99

It appears that until recent years, it was fairly common for a woman to be driven to work at a licensed brothel by a husband, relative, or male “friend”, who took a sum of money when she was registered at the brothel, and that she would then be forced to work off her “debt”, a process which, combined with the cut taken by the house, meant that women could be required to work for years before paying back what she supposedly owed. Since the licensed houses do not appear to be accepting new workers, it seems that this trend is on the decline. It has also been reported that the majority of women have a male “friend” to whom they give the majority of their earnings.100 Prior to beginning work at a licensed house, it has been reported that some women worked in low-level positions as factory labourers, secretaries, dishwashers, hair stylists, and club entertainers.101

Even within the small red-light district in Istanbul, it seems that working conditions differ, and some sex workers claim that they work on their own schedule, choosing to work part time or full time based on their financial needs.102 Until the early 2000s, when a series of sting operations were conducted, it was reported that women worked part-time illegally (without registering) in the licensed houses of Istanbul to offset their salaries in times of financial difficulty, and that some of these women were teachers, bank workers, and government employees.103 For such women, their biggest fear was to be caught and forcibly registered by the police, as once a woman is registered with the police as a sex worker, it is nearly impossible to have it retracted;104 additionally, the children of registered sex workers are banned from government positions with the military and police force.105 Some brothel workers who receive a pension in their father or mother’s name do not file their working hours with social security, because once a woman becomes employed, she loses all rights to that pension.106 In any case, most licensed houses underreport the working hours and wages of sex workers to save on taxes, making it difficult for registered women to retire, as retirement in Turkey is based on years of employment. In recent years, this seems to be changing, and a few legally employed female sex workers have successfully retired.107

Although registered women in Istanbul are allowed to live outside the brothel complex (unlike in other cities in Turkey), they are required to register their home address with the local authorities and the police have the right to raid a registered sex worker’s home at any time they please.108 Due to the strong stigma of sex work in Turkey, most registered sex workers are extremely afraid of being “found out” by their neighbours and the physical/psychological violence they could be subjected to if discovered.109 This stigma is also why collecting data on sex workers, whether registered or not, is difficult, as they are afraid of being “tipped off” to their neighbours or families;110 one Turkish woman reported that her family had found out that she was a sex worker and had sent her brother to kill her to “save” the family’s honour.111 Such honour killings occur most often in the southeast of Turkey, and are reflective of embedded cultural beliefs in which the concept of family honour is heavily predicated on women’s (“proper”) sexual conduct.112

The paragraphs above outline the situation as regards the legal red-light district of Istanbul; as noted above, outside of the state licensed brothel, sex work is not permitted by law.113 Turkish nationals who are caught engaging in prostitution are held for a medical examination and may be detained for a number of days, and foreign nationals, if not found to be “victims of trafficking” (and it seems that few are found to be such “victims”), are deported; the most commonly deported sex workers are from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Romania. A study carried out by a team of Turkish researchers claimed that some women are enticed to the city on false promises of employment, while others come to work temporarily to take up sex work; upon arriving in Istanbul, it has been reported that some women are forced to pay off the debt they acquired upon arrival, which can include the costs of visas, plane tickets, passports, bribes, and daily living expenses.114 While Turkey is a signatory to numerous anti-trafficking protocols and procuring is a crime,115 the infrastructure for identifying and providing support for women who have been caught in debt bondageis underdeveloped.116 As studies on contemporary sold sex in Istanbul have indicated, however, it is difficult to gather data about non-registered sex workers for the reason that the workers themselves, for fear of being tipped off to the police, are reluctant to divulge information about themselves to outsiders.117

The most salient feature of non-registered prostitution in Istanbul is the violence with which it is policed; bribery or sexual favours also appear to be a common occurrence.118 In recent years, it appears that the police have been increasingly issuing fines to non-registered prostitutes and utilizing tactics of intimidation, increasing sex workers’ isolation as they are forced to go further underground.119 There have also been reports of foreign women being taken into custody as “prostitutes” simply because they were “too scantily” dressed.120

The physical health of sex workers has been reported to be low, and some have been identified as being at high risk for illness due to poor living conditions and lack of access to healthcare. Sleeplessness, malnutrition, respiratory infections, skin diseases, venereal diseases, and mental illness are common ailments, often brought about by stressful working conditions.121 Violence, including rape and shootings, has been reported in interviews; of fifty non-registered sex workers, forty-three reported that they had been victims of violence including rape, battery, abduction, and extortion.122 But as sex workers have pointed out, they cannot apply to the police for help or bring the perpetrator to justice because they themselves could also then be subject to legal action, such as arrest or deportation.123

Through the use of the internet and telephones to set up appointments, non-registered prostitution has become less visible, and some sex workers have used this as a means to develop a small but steady group of clients to minimize the risk of violence and police harassment.124 Other venues for finding and meeting clients exist as well, including massage parlours and hotelswhich have made arrangements with sex workers,125 but it appears that increasing numbers of sex workers are turning to the internet as a “safer” means of drawing clients, even though some continue to work on the streets. Escort websites for sold sex can be divided into two groups: those for foreign women, and those for Turkish women. The websites for both groups include detailed information about physical characteristics and sexual services. There is a clear division in terms of cost, with foreign women charging up to double the price of what Turkish sex workers charge. It is not clear whether the sex workers who advertise online work for a pimp or madam, but the fact that a large number of Turkish sex workers use their own rented homes to meet clients suggests that they may work independently. Also, the websites provide dates for availability, suggesting that some sex workers, including university students, may be using it for part-time income rather than full-time employment.

Research has indicated that approximately 20 per cent of men in Turkey have their first sexual encounters with sex workers, and this has been attributed to the conservative sexual climate of the country which is based on cultural values promoting female virginity before marriage and the belief that women’s sexuality must be concealed and controlled.126 Also, studies indicate that a large number of the clients of sex workers are married men who claim that they are unable to achieve sexual satisfaction at home because of their wives’ sexual conservatism.127 While Istanbul, as a large metropolitan city, has in recent years witnessed an increase to a certain degree in sexual liberation, this is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and sexual conservatism remains the norm. This has also been accompanied by the increasing popularity of conservative Islam praising traditional family values, as reflected in the rise to power of the current conservative regime which advocates the family unit as the cornerstone of a “strong” society.

Currently, there is one organization, Kadınkapısı (Women’s door), which is solely dedicated to supporting the sexual health of sex workers and providing counselling as well as education regarding venereal diseases. It was founded in 1996 by sex workers and social workers and has since participated in numerous events and activities to promote the well-being and fair treatment of sex workers in Istanbul.128 Developing connections with non-registered sex workers have proven problematic, however, because either their pimps do not allow it or the sex workers themselves are wary of being tipped off.129 Although state law concerning the regulation of sex work dictates that a state-run support centre for sex workers should be located in the vicinity of the brothel district and be open at all hours to provide support and treatment, this has never been implemented. Likewise, the law stipulates that there should be organizations providing support for women who would like to quit sex work, but these also have not materialized.

In an attempt to provide haven for the large number of women in Turkey who are victims of domestic violence, a small number of shelters have been opened in recent years as the result of lobbying by women’s groups. However, under the current regulation, it is not permitted for sex workers or hiv-positive women to stay in shelters,130 although revisions currently underway may lift the restriction for sex workers. Significantly, the issue of sex work has largely been excluded from discussions among women’s groups in Turkey, and the voices of female sex workers have not been incorporated into feminist movements, perhaps out of fear that in the eyes of society, as a “shameful” issue, it would “de-legitimize” them.131

There is also a notable silence regarding the issue of child prostitution; while it has been acknowledged to exist, to date a sound investigation into the matter has not been carried out. Studies have highlighted the fact, however, that the majority of sex workers began working before the age of eighteen and that there is a severe lack of preventative and protective infrastructure regarding child prostitution.132 As with female sex work, male and homosexual sex work in Istanbul has taken on a prominent web presence as an anonymous way to contact clients; however, a distinction should be made, as many men who are the active partner in a male-male sexual encounter report that they do not perceive themselves as being homosexual.133

It has been estimated that there are 5,000 transgender people in Istanbul, 4,000 of whom are engaged in sex work, which is nearly 15 per cent of the estimated non-registered 30,000 sex workers in the city. Due to the strong discrimination against transgender people in Turkey, it is nearly impossible for them to find employment, and hence many turn to sex work as a source of income. In contrast to twenty years ago, when they resided and worked in a central location in Istanbul and had a sense of group solidarity, transgender sex workers have become more and more isolated as a result of increasing levels of violence and police intimidation.134 In 2009, the Istanbul police initiated a “bonus system” in which police officers can fine transgender persons who are in public on the grounds of “disturbing the peace” and are rewarded for the number of tickets they issue; as a result, transgender individuals have been forced to relocate and have a reduced public presence,135 and while some continue to work on the streets, many advertise on the internet to reach clients. It has been noted that male clients seeking transgender encounters often prefer individuals who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery as the clients wish to be anally penetrated.136


Sold sex in Istanbul over the past 400 years has undergone significant shifts, but certain continuities are prominent as well. Some of the shifts include changes in the way that prostitution is monitored and changes in the demographics of the women (and men) who sell sex. Prior to the introduction of a regulated system of prostitution, while royal Ottoman edicts may have been issued against sold sex, local dignitaries and religious figures, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, were in charge of overseeing the sexual morality of Istanbul’s districts; residents also filed petitions complaining about the existence of prostitution as well. With the adoption of licensed prostitution, this power was transferred to the secular authorities—that is, police, local health officials, and municipal officers.

One point of shift is the demographics of prostitution; from the sixteenth century until the 1930s, prostitutes were from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, but as the result of vigorous efforts to “Turkify” the nation under both the Ottoman and republican governments, the non-Muslim segments of society shrank drastically, and this is reflected in the fact that the registered women in the state-regulated brothels of Istanbul are predominantly Muslim (and Turkish citizens, as state law requires). Control over prostitution through regulation was seen by state and municipal authorities as necessary to prevent further “damage” to the body of the nation through the spread of disease, even if this entailed populating the state brothels with Muslim women who, once placed on the records, could never rescind registration. In this way, these (irrevocably) “fallen women”, sealed in behind the walls of the legal brothel, could serve the state by ensuring that men’s sexual desires were, in theory, bolstered against infections and shunted away from the “virtuous” remainder of the female population. However, as in the early twentieth century when Istanbul was internationally condemned for its role in “trafficking”, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic boom in Turkey in the 1980s, clandestine prostitution increased, as women from eastern Europe and ex-Soviet bloc countries began engaging in illegal sex work in the city. Another point of continuity is that today there seems to be a repetition of the abolitionist trend that occurred in the 1930s; new sex workers are not being licensed, and whether female, transgender, or male, they are primarily outside the legal system of state-recognized brothels, working on the streets but also taking advantage of technologies such as the internet.

At this point, the future of sex work in Istanbul is unclear. The staunchly “pro-family” government, a strong supporter of traditional values (including virtue as a reflection of “properly expressed” female sexuality), which at present has little opposition in parliament and has made slow steps to implement the gender equity laws and labour legislation required for eu accession, has been quietly closing down the few remaining brothels where sex workers can legally work. At the same time, sex workers, a few female activists, and the transgender community have been pressing for an expansion of laws to provide protection for individuals who engage in sold sex and for equitable labour practices; to date, such laws have not been enacted. To further complicate the narrative, some female sex workers themselves have rallied for the elimination of licensed brothels, claiming that they represent the patriarchal oppression of women. Nonetheless, regardless of the approach that is ultimately taken, as Istanbul continues to grow (with a population fast approaching 14,000,000), the number of sex workers will also likely increase from the estimated 30,000 already in existence.


Colin Imber, Ebu’s-su’ud: The Islamic Legal Tradition (Edinburgh, 1997), p. 45.


The suppression of prostitution under Suleiman the Magnificent, also known as the Lawgiver, and Selim ii coincided with a trend towards religious conservatism in the Porte. Lesley Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York, 1993), p. 272.


Uriel Heyd, Studies in Ottoman Law (Oxford, 1973), p. 130.


During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, a new system of laws (known as kanun) was drawn up which often paralleled Sharia but differed greatly in terms of punishment. While Sharia prescribed corporal punishment for sexual crimes, kanun stipulated that fines would be paid based on the gender, class, and religious background of the offender. This was partly a matter of practicality, as Sharia law made it quite difficult to prove the guilt of a suspected offender, requiring numerous witnesses and strict punishments for the crime of bearing false witness. Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500–1900 (Berkeley, 2006), pp. 59–60.


Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi/Ottoman Archive of the Office of the Prime Minister [hereafter boa], ie.dh 15/1384; C.ZB, 28/1355; C.ZB, 25/1236; C.ZB, 60/2995; C.ZB, 11/502; C.ZB, 41/2037; C.ZB, 20/995; mvl, 679/88; dh.eum.adl, 12/31; Fariba Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment in Istanbul, 1700–1800 (Berkeley, 2010), p. 108; Fikret Yılmaz, “Zina ve fuhuş arasında kalanlar: Fahişe, subaşıya karşı”, Toplumsal Tarih, 220 (2012), pp. 20–29, 23.


Ehud Toledano, “Late Ottoman Concepts of Slavery, 1830–1880”, Poetics Today, 14 (1993), pp. 477–506, 479.


Female slaves could, through marriage, be manumitted, whereupon they could be integrated into society with all the rights of free individuals; male slaves were also often manumitted. In the sixteenth century, most slaves were from Russia and eastern Europe. Yvonne J. Seng, “Fugitives and Factotums: Slaves in Early Sixteenth-Century Istanbul”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 39 (1996), pp. 136–169, 145–157.


Various royal edicts were issued prohibiting this practice, particularly in relation to its pervasiveness in Ottoman caravanserais. Heyd, Studies in Ottoman Law, p. 126.


Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, pp. 96–97. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Ottoman government reluctantly became a signatory to international treaties banning the slave trade, although the trade persisted, albeit on a diminished scale, in Istanbul into the early twentieth century. Toledano, “Late Ottoman Concepts of Slavery”, p. 485.


Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, pp. 91–92. In Ottoman Istanbul, cemeteries were public spaces where people would go to spend time, as they were (and are) filled with trees; also, unlike in the Christian tradition, cemeteries were not necessarily seen as “spooky” places.


Ibid., pp. 90–94.


Fariba Zarinebaf-Shahr, “The Role of Women in the Urban Economy of Istanbul”, International Labor and Working-class History, 60 (2001), pp. 141–152, 142.


Ahmet Refik Altınay, Onuncu asr-ı hicride İstanbul hayatı (Ankara, 1987), p. 57; Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, p. 91.


Zarinebaf-Shahr, “The Role of Women”, p. 143.


Mehmet Demirtaş, “xviii. yüzyılda İstanbul’a göçü önlemek için alınan tedbirler ve görülen aksamalar’, Ekev Akademi Dergisi, 33 (2007), pp. 195–214, 208.


Osman Köse, “xviii. yüzyıl sonları Rus ve Avusturya savaşları esnasında Osmanlı devletinde bir uygulama: İstanbul’da içki ve fuhuş yasağı”, Turkish Studies, 2 (2007), pp. 104–123, 112–113.


Ibid., p. 110. Aydın Yetkin, “ii. meşrutiyet dönemi’nde toplumsal ahlâk bunalimi: Fuhuş meselesi”, Tarihin Peşinde, 6 (2011), pp. 21–54, 24.


Süleyman Özmucur and Şevket Pamuk, “Real Wages and the Standard of Living in the Ottoman Empire, 1489–1914”, Journal of Economic History, 62 (2002), pp. 293–321, 300.


Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, pp. 90–91.


Ibid., pp. 98–101.


In 1602, three prostitutes were caught soliciting; two of them were punished by branding of the genitals and the third was drowned in the Bosphorus. Yetkin, “Rus ve Avusturya savaşları”, p. 25.


Köse, “Yüzyıl sonları”, pp. 115–116.


Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, p. 110.


Relli Shechter, “Modern Welfare in the Early-modern Ottoman Economy: A Historiographic Overview with Many Questions”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 48 (2005), pp. 253–276, 263.


Zarinebaf, Crime and Punishment, pp. 100–101; Ralph S. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East (Seattle, 1988), p. 109.


Yetkin, “Rus ve Avusturya savaşları”, p. 26.


İbrahim Kalkan, “Medicine and Politics in the Late Ottoman Empire (1876–1909)” (Unpublished m.a., Boğaziçi University, 2004), p. 15.


Osman Nuri Ergin, Nuri, Mecelle-i umur-i belediye: birinci cilt, tarih-i teşkilat-ı belediye: ikinci bölüm (Istanbul, 1995), p. 3300.


Ibid., p. 3297.


Emraz-ı zühreviyenin men-i sirayetine dair neşr olunan nizamnameye müteallik talimatname (Istanbul, 1915), p. 4.


İnci Hot, “Ülkemizde frengi hastalığı ile mücadele”, Tıp Etiği, Hukuk, Tarihi Dergisi, 12 (2004), pp. 36–43, 37.


Rıfat Bali, The Jews and Prostitution in Constantinople: 1854–1922 (Istanbul, 2008), p. 78.


Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (London, 1997), p. 145.


Mark D. Wyers, “Wicked” Istanbul: The Regulation of Prostitution in the Early Turkish Republic (Istanbul, 2012), p. 113.


Charles Riggs, “Adult Delinquency”, in C.R. Johnson (ed.), Constantinople Today or the Pathfinder Survey of Constantinople: A Study in Oriental Social Life (Istanbul, 1922), pp. 343–370, 362–363.


Sadık Albayrak, Meşrutiyet İstanbul’unda kadın ve sosyal değişim (Istanbul, 2002), p. 422.


boa, zb, 621/78.


boa, dh.eum.adl, 74/6.


Nuri Ergin, Mecelle-i umur-i belediye, pp. 3469–3470. The cup (Committee of Union and Progress) began as a secret society in the late nineteenth century and later was transformed into a liberal reform movement and political party that called for democratization and reform in the Ottoman Empire; because of their calls for a constitutional form of rule, members were persecuted by the imperial government. By 1913, the cup had consolidated its power and led the Ottoman Empire into World War i on the side of the Germans.


The Capitulations were a series of trade agreements initially instated as a means of encouraging trade in the Empire but which eventually resulted in western governments having the power to limit Ottoman authority on its own territory.


Malte Fuhrmann, “‘Western Perversions’ at the Threshold of Felicity: The European Prostitutes of Galata-Pera, 1870–1915”, History and Anthropology, 21 (2010), pp. 159–172; Bali, The Jews and Prostitution, p. 31; Müge Özbek, “The Regulation of Prostitution in Beyoğlu, 1875–1915”, Middle Eastern Studies, 46 (2010), pp. 555–568, 567.


Fuhrmann, “Western Perversions”, p. 160.


Bali, The Jews and Prostitution, p. 32.


Fuhrmann, “Western Perversions”, p. 160.


Bali, The Jews and Prostitution, pp. 19–23.


Kemal Yakut and Aydın Yetkin, “ii. meşrutiyet döneminde toplumsal ahlâk bunalımı: fuhuş meselesi”, Kebikeç, 31 (2011), pp. 275–307, 284; Yavuz S. Karakışla, “Arşivden bir belge: Askeri dikimevlerinde çalıştırılan Müslüman fahişeler”, Toplumsal Tarih, 112 (2003), pp. 98–101, 99.


On 14 August 1916, a Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women was founded. Yavuz S. Karakışla, Women, War and Work in the Ottoman Empire: Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women, 1916–1923 (Istanbul, 2005), pp. 55, 148.


Ahmet Makal, “Türkiye’de erken Cumhuriyet döneminde kadın emeği”, Çalışma ve Toplum, 2 (2010), pp. 13–39, 20–21.


İlbeyi Özer, “Mütareke ve işgal yıllarında Osmanlı devletinde görülen sosyal çöküntü ve toplumsal yaşam”, Osmanlı Tarih Araştırma ve Uygulama Dergisi, 14 (2003), pp. 247–271, 255.


Mabelle C. Phillips, “Widowhood: A Study of Dependency due to War”, in C.R. Johnson (ed.), Constantinople Today or the Pathfinder Survey of Constantinople: A Study in Oriental Social Life (Istanbul, 1922), pp. 343–370, 313.


Zürcher, Turkey, p. 171.


Avigdor Levy, “The Siege of Edirne (1912–1913) as Seen by a Jewish Eyewitness: Social, Political and Cultural Perspectives”, in Avigdor Levy (ed.), Jews, Turks and Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century (New York, 2002), pp. 174–181.


Özer, “Mütareke ve işgal yıllarında”, p. 251.


Cengiz Kirli, “A Profile of the Labor Force in Early Nineteenth Century Istanbul”, International Labor and Working-class History, 60 (2001), pp. 125–140, 127–128.


Ahmet Makal, “Türkiye’de erken Cumhuriyet döneminde kadın emeği”, pp. 17–18; Donald Quataert, “Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922”, International Labor and Working-class History, 60 (2001), pp. 93–109, 104; Edward C. Clark, “The Ottoman Industrial Revolution”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 5 (1974), pp. 65–76, 70.


Gülhan Balsoy, “Gendering Ottoman Labor History: The Cibali Régie Factory in the Early Twentieth Century”, International Review of Social History, 54 (2009), pp. 45–68, 65.


Riggs, “Adult Delinquency”, p. 358; Mustafa Galip, Fahişeler hayatı ve redaet-i ahlâkiye (Istanbul, 1920), p. 74.


Hatice Bayartan, “Geçmişten günümüze İstanbul’da Nüfus”, Coğrafya Dergisi, 11 (2003), p. 5–20, 10.


Riggs, “Adult Delinquency”, p. 367.


It should also be noted that in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems that the number of foreigners residing in Turkey decreased steadily, from 0.6 in 1927 to 0.2 per cent in 1945. W.C. Brice, “The Population of Turkey in 1950”, Geographical Journal, 120 (1954), pp. 347–352, 350.


Bruce Rankin and Işık Aytaç, “Gender Inequality in Schooling: The Case of Turkey”, Sociology of Education, 79 (2006), pp. 25–43, 29; Fevziye Sayılan and Ahmet Yıldız, “The Historical and Political Context of Adult Literacy in Turkey”, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28 (2009), pp. 735–749, 743; Jenny White, “State Feminism, Modernization, and the Turkish Republican Woman”, nwsa Journal, 15 (2003), pp. 145–159, 150.


Zürcher, Turkey, p. 202.


League of Nations [hereafter lon], Report of the Special Body of Experts on the Traffic in Women and Children, Part ii (Geneva, 1927), pp. 166–172. This report contains only abstracts of the information gathered by the undercover investigators during the course of their research.


“İstanbul’da fuhuş meselesi: Mecmuamızın içtimai tetkiki”, Resimli Ay, March 1928, p. 22. A first-hand account given in 1931 by a registered sex worker in Istanbul similarly indicated that prostitutes often had such a “male companion.” Wyers, Wicked Istanbul, pp. 117–118.


Wyers, Wicked Istanbul, pp. 163–166.


lon, Prostitutes: Their Early Lives (Geneva, 1938), pp. 112–114.


In 1898, a shelter was opened in Istanbul for poor female teachers and servants to prevent them from falling into a life of prostitution. Fuhrmann, “Western Perversions”, p. 162. It appears that in 1911, there was a hospice for the homeless which accepted sex workers, but the details of its operations or scale of work are not clear. Bali, The Jews and Prostitution, p. 45.


Ibid., p. 57.


Ada Holland Shissler, “‘If You Ask Me’: Sabiha Sertel’s Advice Column, Gender Equity, and Social Engineering in the Early Turkish Republic”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 3 (2007), pp. 1–30.; idem, “Womanhood is not for Sale: Sabiha Zekeriya Sertel against Prostitution and for Women’s Employment”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 4 (2008), pp. 12–30.


Yeşim Zihnioğlu, Kadınsız inkılap: Nezihe Muhiddin, kadınlar halk fırkası, kadın birliği (Istanbul, 2003), p. 258.


Aslı Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti: İstanbul’da hayat kadınları, seks işçiliği ve şiddet (Istanbul, 2011), p. 102.


Turkey, due to its heavily agricultural economy, was severely impacted by the depression. Zürcher, Turkey, p. 205.


Wyers, Wicked Istanbul, pp. 119–142.


“Genelevlerin kapatılması meselesi”, Milliyet, 25 August 1950; “Genelevler kapatılıyor”, Milliyet, 16 October 1950; “Genelevlerin kapatılması”, Milliyet, 19 October 1950; “Beyaz kadın ticaret”, Milliyet, 2 February 1954.


Burak Gürel, “Agrarian Change and Labour Supply in Turkey, 1950–1980”, Journal of Agrarian Change, 11 (2011), pp. 195–219, 204.


Zürcher, Turkey, p. 284.


Ibid., p. 316.


“Geçim sıkıntısı kadın tellallarının işini kolaylaştıyor”, Milliyet, 19 September 1985.


“‘Vesikalı yar’ bolluğu”, Milliyet, 31 August 1988.


Donna M. Hughes, “The ‘Natasha’ Trade: The Transnational Shadow Market of Trafficking in Women (1990)”, available at:; last accessed 10 July 2017.


Önder Karakuş and Edmund F. McGarrell, “Association between Migrant Prostitution, Trafficking in Women, and Serious Crime in Turkey”, Uluslararası Güvenlik ve Terörizm Dergisi, 1 (2010), pp. 79–103, 87.


Muhtar Çokar and Habibe Yılmaz Kayar, Seks işçileri ve yasalar: Türkiye’de yasaların seks işçilerine etkileri ve öneriler (Istanbul, 2011), pp. 28–29.


Wyers, Wicked Istanbul, p. 16.


Data from Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, pp. 28–29. Interview with 138 sex workers.




Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, pp. 28–29.


Nellie Munin, “Female Employment and Turkey’s eu Accession Process”, Mediterranean Politics, 16 (2011), pp. 449–457, 451.


İpek İlkkaracan, “Why so Few Women in the Labor Market in Turkey?” Feminist Economics, 18 (2012), pp. 1–37, 2.


Ibid., p. 6.


Ibid., pp. 16, 21.


Fügen Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü (Istanbul, 2004), pp. 43, 47, 97, 102, 109, 125.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 30.


Ibid., p. 31.


Ibid., p. 46.


Ibid., p. 36.


Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, p. 46.


“Dimming the Red Lights in Turkey”, New York Times, 8 August 2011.


Some registered women reported having up to 30 to 50 clients per day, particularly on holidays and weekends. Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, pp. 76, 105; Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 46.


Zengin, İktidarın Mahremiyeti, pp. 113–114.


Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, pp. 23, 76, 79, 82, 103; Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 59.


Ibid., pp. 19, 49, 82, 92, 118–119.


Ibid., pp. 75, 84.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 110.


Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, p. 124; Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, pp. 117, 121.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 106.


Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, p. 35.


Ibid., p. 76.


Ibid., p. 81.


Ibid., p. 30.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 64.


Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, p. 120.


Filiz Kardam, The Dynamics of Honor Killings in Turkey (Ankara, 2005), p. 16.


A report issued by the Ankara Chamber of Commerce estimated that in 2010 there were approximately 100,000 sex workers in Turkey, only 3,000 of which were registered and work in the fifty-six state-licensed brothels located around the country. Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 26.


Ibid., pp. 22–23, 51.


Ibid., p. 53.


“2011 Trafficking in Persons Report”, available at:; last accessed 3 June 2012.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 64; Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 27.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, pp. 74, 86, 123–125; Yıldırım, Fahişeliğin öbür yüzü, p. 98; Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 80.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 80.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 74.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, pp. 38–39.


Ibid., p. 44.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 131.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, p. 18.


Ibid., p. 61.


Ibid., p. 47; Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 100. See also Nuray Sakalil-Ugurlu and Peter Glick, “Ambivalent Sexism and Attitudes toward Women who Engage in Premarital Sex in Turkey”, The Journal of Sex Research, 40 (2003), pp. 294–303. Just to cite one example, this has been reflected in the debates that have arisen over forced virginity examinations for young women in schools. Ayşe Parla, “The ‘Honor’ of the State: Virginity Examinations in Turkey”, Feminist Studies, 27 (2001), pp. 65–88.


Sakalil-Ugurlu and Glick, “Ambivalent Sexism and Attitudes towards Women”, p. 47.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, pp. 72–74; Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, pp. 60–61.


Şule Toktaş and Çağla Diner, “Feminists’ Dilemma: With or without the State? Violence against Women and Women’s Shelters in Turkey”, Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 17 (2011), pp. 49–75, 59.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, pp. 139–140.


Çokar and Kayar, Seks işçileri, pp. 32–33, 92.


Ibid., p. 36.


Ibid., p. 35. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, thirty transgender persons were murdered. Ibid., p. 97.


Zengin, İktidarın mahremiyeti, p. 72.


“Bu işi yapmak ruhumda var”, Radikal, 16 June 2007.


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