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Under the shade of a tree at an Istanbul cafe, Suzan, a voluptuous woman in her 50s with dyed blond hair and a warm, generous smile, describes how she went from teenage bride to full-time sex worker. As she talks, her cell phone rings nearly every 15 minutes.
Customers, she explains. She was married off by her father at age 16, with only a primary-school education, and she left her alcoholic, gambling husband after having seven children with him, one of whom died in infancy. To support the remaining six, she tried everything: selling cheap clothes in a local market, working in a factory, waitressing at a tea garden. A chance meeting with a sex worker while waiting for a train convinced her it was time to switch careers.
Unlike other jobs, however, this one put her in the cross-hairs of the law. In the 20 years she has worked in this field, she has been fined by the police more times than she can count, and she has appeared in court more than 50 times. Four years ago, she spent six months in prison while police investigated her possible involvement with drugs and work with underage girls. They found evidence of neither and released her without charges.
Until then, Suzan had hidden her work from her children. But the six-month sentence compelled her to tell them where she was going — and why. In a voice clotted with emotion, she recalls how they comforted her during their weekly visits to the jail. You raised us, and you brought us bread. Can we come and talk to the judge?
When the last of her children finishes school — after she has seen her youngest daughter graduate from college — she plans to leave the industry for good. Istanbul is no Bangkok. Its sex trade is, for the most part, invisible. But sex work, both lawful and unlawful, has a long, distinguished history in Turkey that reaches back to the height of the Ottoman Empire. In the 21st century, however, it is quietly being swept away by an Islamist government whose desired image for Turkey — modern, pious, and upwardly mobile — leaves little room for the work of Suzan and her colleagues.