ISTANBUL, Turkey — Leaning against the sink in her kitchen, the midday sun hits Medine Gezer’s face at an angle, aging her beyond her 34 years. The shrieks of her three children drift in from another room, mixing with the smell of cooked rice and cumin.
“My mother, she worked in the field every day. But here in the city, what can I do?” says Gezer, a Kurdish woman living on the second floor of a building in Istanbul’s Tarlabasi neighborhood. The structure, which is home to eight families, is of ramshackle construction but immaculate maintenance. Gesturing to the other room, Gezer asks: “Where would I leave my children if I worked? Here I cook, I keep clean, I know my neighbors. My husband goes out, he works for us.”
In most countries with a similar starting point, the number of employed women has gone up significantly since the 1980s. But in Turkey, the number has spiraled downward from 34.3 percent in 1988 to 21.6 percent in 2008. In 2006 there were fewer women participating in the Turkish economy than in any other country in the OECD, or for that matter in Europe and the Central Asian region.
“Turkey is striving to become a more competitive force, competing with China, Russia, India and Brazil on the global market,” said Diego Angel-Urdinola, a senior economist at the World Bank and team leader of the “Female Labor Participation” report jointly prepared by the World Bank and Turkey's State Planning Organization. “But in the same way that you wouldn’t play football without a full team, countries can’t compete globally if they don’t use the full potential of all their citizens.”
Studies show that increasing the number of women who are actively employed in Turkey would reduce poverty and increase national economic output.
“More and better jobs for women will mean higher incomes and better lives not only for them, but also for their families,” said Ulrich Zachau, World Bank Country Director for Turkey. “If, for example, 6 or 7 percent more of Turkish women start full-time jobs ... this will reduce poverty by around 15 percent.”
Urbanization and declining agricultural employment are seen as one cause of the shrinking female workforce in Turkey. Women like Medine Gezer, who have moved away from the family-based environment of rural agriculture, have a hard time adjusting to the working environments typical of urban labor, which often take them away from their homes and families.
Appalling working conditions, low salaries, long working hours and lack of affordable childcare make the situation for urban working women difficult. The demands of family and community often tip the scales toward staying at home.
“Turkey has always been a very conservative place where, with the exception of the very small percent of population that gets a higher education, it’s generally expected that once a woman gets married she stops working or never starts,” explains Jenny White, professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of "Money Makes Us Relatives", a description of women’s labor in urban Turkey in the 1980s. “It’s not just pious poor people that don’t want women to work — across the board there is an expectation that women’s place is behind their husband.”
Sengul Akin, a gruff shopkeeper in Fatih, one of Istanbul’s most notoriously conservative neighborhoods, argues that many of his friends encourage their wives to stay at home not only for religious reasons but to keep them safe from exploitation and abuse.
“I don’t think women should just stay home all the time,” he says. “But without a degree, what jobs can they do? They must travel far, and the conditions are not safe.”
The “Female Labor Participation” report argues that the Turkish government can encourage more women to work by removing barriers to businesses hiring women, increasing female education levels and making it easier for women to get out of the home and seek employment.
Some progress is already being made on these fronts. The government recently introduced a program that subsidizes employers’ social security contributions for newly hired women for up to five years. There has also been discussion of several programs aimed at helping lessen the burden of childcare for working women, including community programs that provide safe and affordable childcare and early childhood education programs.
Still, some argue that not enough is being done, and that which is being done only addresses a small part of the problem.
“There is a pervasive mindset that believes that women who live in a traditional fashion and cover their heads also cover their brains. These women can be trained to work with computers. Microloans are another excellent idea,” says White. “The trick is to allow women a degree of autonomy, the mistake is to require them to leave their home in order to work.”
While progress can certainly be made, university students are currently banned from wearing headscarves under Turkey's strictly secularist laws, which decree that religious clothing cannot be worn in public places — creating an effective bottleneck to the aspirations of many conservative Turkish women.
“If you cover your head here, you cannot go to university. And if you can’t go to university, why go to high school?” says Gezer. “I would like to work for my children, but for me it is impossible.”