Status of Women in Turkey: Wearing a Gender Lens to Enhance Democracy

Dr Pelin Kadercan

Why women are relatively disadvantaged over men in societies all over the world has been a major question both in the scholarly debate and in public opinion. Unfortunately, women constitute the majority of the world’s poorest population today.[1] Lately, due to the large number of cases of violence against women occupying the news, violation of women’s rights is increasingly becoming a major issue in domestic politics and a concern for many citizens in Turkey. Standing for freedom, equality, fairness and holding political leaders to account, democracy is not only an effective but also a virtuous way to govern and is therefore the political system which best defends human rights and the rights of subordinate groups such as women for that matter.[2] This article attempts to incorporate the gender problem into the debates about democracy in Turkey by overviewing the status of women in order to design and implement projects under a proactive agenda. Putting on a gender sensitive lens, in this regard, would enable us to make gender structures visible. I will examine the status of women in Turkey in two contexts: the family — that is the private realm — and the workplace as the public sphere. Research shows that democratization in these spheres, together with raising the level of education, would fundamentally alter the status of women in the region.

Values and Family Life

Household and family life is where women’s subordinate status and violence against women is best observed.[3] While the republican reforms provided the legal and institutional structures for the termination of sex segregation and unequal treatment of women under the law, they did not necessarily produce comparable changes in life-style.[4] According to Kagitcibasi’s comparative analysis, intrafamily roles are basic cultural elements that are most resistant to change in this respect.

“The Unseen Labor of Women: Second Shift” by Dr. Suna Basak, Sevgi Kıngır and Sehnaz Yasar is a recent study that deals directly with the relations among family members and gender roles in households in Turkey.[5] The authors conclude in their research that the ratio of engagement of women to men in domestic tasks such as doing the laundry and dishes, for example, is approximately 85 percent to 3percent respectively. The research shows that the higher the education level of women, the less she is involved in domestic tasks. This research further highlights that in the words of Basak, Kingir and Yasar, “a democratization in the private sphere could be attained through a more egalitarian sharing between spouses,”[6] also suggesting that change could arrive by transforming the long established “cultural perception of women as ‘service-providers’ and men as those served.”

My own experience as a participant and observer in a mother support project in Turkey points towards the need to create change in the definition and perception of gender roles. During my time as a participant in the project organized by one of the ACEV (Foundation for Education for the Mother and her Child) kindergartens in Istanbul during 2013, all mothers who were predominantly white-collar workers complained that they felt the burden of the second shift jobs on their shoulders at night when they arrived home from after they finished their “first” shift at work. During the group sessions for supporting young families, a majority of these professional women mentioned that they could not enjoy the comfort of their homes as their husbands did.

As for physical violence against women, according to statistics released by the Turkish Statistical Institute, 21 percent of all divorces in the year 2012 are caused by spousal violence against women within the family. Another recent study released by the same institute reveals that 43 percent of rural women surveyed and 38 percent of urban women surveyed are exposed to physical violence by their partner or husband at least once in their lives in Turkey.[7]

Obviously, both observational data and statistical research point to the subordination of women in the sphere of family and it is very difficult to change the long established perception about gender roles unless women fight hard to create change in their own private spheres.

Hypocrisy at the Workplace

The status of women in the workplace is another bleak territory in a country whose economy is liberal and whose corporations strive to be competent on a global scale. Corporate senior administrators often see the need to embrace a global corporate culture, which is predominantly “western”, but when it comes to the rights of women in the workplace, they simply embrace traditional values on a local level. Transnational corporations have absolutely learned to adapt to local markets, however, when it comes to culture, they often use the culture of locals to achieve their own ends relentlessly.

“The female share on the executive boards of Turkish companies throughout is not more than 10 percent,” says Murat Yeşildere, Turkish managing partner of the international human resources firm Egon Zehnder.[8] The rate reflects much lower numbers if family businesses, where female members may have a say in management, are excluded from the sample population. Overall employment figures do not reflect a pleasant image either. The president of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey, Sema Kendirci, argues that female employment has been “falling across Turkey in the last decade. The total female employment rate has dropped from 35 to almost 25 percent in the last 10 years, which is lower than any European country.”[9]

The level of education ratio of males to females released by TURKSTAT (National Education Statistical Database) supports the subordination of women in Turkey: In 2011, there were 21 males per 100 females by illiterate population, 179 males per 100 females by compulsory education, 151 males per 100 females by graduation from high school or equivalent, and 149 males per 100 females by graduation from higher education institution.[10]

The continuous subordination of women under the aegis of traditional values in Turkish society illustrates the extreme forms of male authoritarianism. But the inequality between sexes also highlights the differences based on class and ethnicity have taken in societies where economy suffers from an uneven distribution of income. Only by wearing a gender sensitive lens we can make sense of the problems related to the status of women in our society, make a decision about our next step, and by doing that move beyond the long established structures. The gender sensitive lens enables us to focus on the underlying problems, ask precise questions, and act pro-actively.[11] However, we need to be very cautious with respect to our perspective: to demand that men and women should have equal rights in a Western-style democracy homogenizes the diversity of experience, and at best minimizes or ignores the sufferings of women in Turkey. This article aims to overview the status of women regardless of ethnicity, religion or economic background and aims to express the need to create change. Further research on the status of women should be designed by taking into consideration the heterogeneity and diversity of women’s experience in Turkey.[12]

[1] Nefis Sadik, CGIAR Meeting Conference Proceedings “Feeding the World, Sustaining the Earth: The Critical Importance of Population Issues,” (Washington D.C.: CGIAR Secretariat, 2001).

[2] Women’s rights and human rights are treated distinctly in the scholarly literature of human rights. See Charlotte Bunch, “Women’s rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-vision of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 12 no. 4 (Nov. 1990): 486-498.

[3] The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

[4] For the discussion of the comparative study that manifest family life patterns. Modernization and women’s status with respect to countries like Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, US and Turkey see Cigdem Kagitcibasi, “Status of Women in Turkey: Cross-Cultural Perspective, IJMES 18, (1986): 485. pp. 485-499

[5] Editorial, “Kadinin Bagimsiz Olabilmesinin Bedeli Iki Kat Calismak,” Milliyet, December 12, 2013. <> accessed January 15, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[8] Selcuk Oktay, “Turkish businesswomen make a difference,” <> accessed Jan. 14, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Women In Statistics 2012, (Ankara: Turkish Statistical Institute Publications, 2012).

[11] John Baylis, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford University Press, 2011), 266.

[12] See Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 1988 for an all-encompassing analysis of the “true” voice of the “subaltern”. Once we try to understand this essay in the context of Turkey’s political history, we find   differences based on social class which are mixed with gender/sex constructions.

Author biography 

Dr Pelin Kadercan is currently teaching International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading. She completed her PhD in History at the University of Rochester, NY. In addition to Reading, she acted as a lecturer and project manager at various institutions in the USA and Spain including the University of Rochester, University of Illinois at Chicago, Virginia Commonwealth University and IBEI (Barcelona, Spain). Before coming to the UK, she was the Executive Director at the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Koc University. An alumna of Bogazici University in Educational Sciences, Dr Kadercan also holds an MA in European Politics and International Relations. She is interested in the issues of higher education, immigration, international human rights and gender studies.

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