politics : culture : economics

Turkey has a Kurdish question, a headscarf question. Why no women question?

In Society, Turkey on October 20, 2010 at 5:27 pm

UPDATE: In a later post, I look a bit more closely at labour force participation rates—particularly at the implications of the fact that they include unpaid agricultural work.


Last week’s release of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap (GGG) index made for truly depressing reading from a Turkish point of view. To be placed 126th out of 134 countries on gender equality should be a source of the deepest shame for anyone involved in Turkish public life. But it probably won’t be. Complacency abounds when it comes to the role of women in Turkey.

There are deep problems in Turkish society, but not all of them manage to rise to the political surface. The country has its ‘Kurdish question’ and its ‘headscarf question’ (which is really a proxy for the ‘religion question’, albeit one which, conveniently for men, cashes out only in terms of the opportunities available to women). But there’s no ‘women question’. There really ought to be. If you haven’t done so already, have a browse through the ‘women’ category on Jenny White’s blog. It makes for grim reading.

To say that the role of women in Turkish society requires political attention isn’t to say that it should become a political football. Individual politicians and parties should be criticised, of course. None more so than prime minister Erdoğan for repeatedly stating that he doesn’t believe in the equality of men and women. (I’m still surprised at how relatively subdued the response to these statements has been. Had he come out and said he didn’t believe in laicism, all hell would have broken loose.) This government needs to be held to account for what it does and says on matters relating to gender equality. But we should resist the temptation to treat the AKP as a scapegoat for Turkey’s miserable position in the global gender rankings. The problem runs much deeper than any single party.

Take the issue of labour force participation, which is one of the GGG indicators on which Turkey performs most poorly. On October 11th 2010, Mustafa Sönmez of Cumhuriyet was quoted in Hurriyet Daily News as saying that female labour force participation rates had fallen since the current AKP government came to power, and that this reflected the party’s view that a woman’s proper role isn’t to be a worker but to be a housewife and mother.

This kind of party-political point-scoring is both lazy and counter-productive. Mr Sönmez is right that female labour force participation has fallen while the AKP has been in power, from 27.9 per cent in 2002 to 26.0 per cent in 2009. But what he fails to note is that the downward trend long preceded the AKP’s rise to power. As you’ll see in the chart below, which I’ve compiled using TurkStat data, Turkey-wide female participation rates (represented by the blue line) have fallen from 34.3 per cent in 1988 (when the first data are available) to 2009’s 26.0 per cent. There’s a problem, but it didn’t start in 2002.

Female labour participation rates in Turkey 1988-2009

Mr Sönmez is right to identify assumptions about the role of women as an important factor in driving Turkey’s participation rates. But his attempt to imply that this is an AKP-specific issue is absurd. I haven’t checked any survey data, but it hardly seems necessary. Daily life here makes it blindingly clear that inegalitarian ideas about the role of women are well established throughout much of Turkish society, up and down the income scale and among both men and women.

The downward trend in participation rates can’t all be attributed to attitudes about the role of women, however. There are structural factors in Turkey’s economy and society that have played an important role in pushing female participation rates down. Two of these are urbanisation and the changing profile of the rural labour market, which we can illustrate with reference to the urban (red) and rural (yellow) participation rates in the chart above.

The gap between the yellow and red lines has narrowed significantly since 1988 (and particularly since 2001). But labour force participation rates are still notably higher in rural than in urban areas. This reflects the greater availability of unskilled agricultural work to uneducated or under-educated women in rural areas. This gap means that as families have migrated to the cities over the decades, women have dropped out of the labour force because they have been unprepared for the urban labour market. Even in 2008, when the gap between rural and urban rates was at its narrowest, a significant fall-off of 12.1 percentage points was still being recorded. This means that for every 100 women who migrated to an urban area in 2008, the number of women outside the labour force was increasing by 12.

The other key factor behind falling participation rates for women is the changing profile of the rural labour market. You can see this in the downward trend of the chart’s yellow line. In the period for which data are available, rural participation rates dropped from a peak of 56.1 per cent in 1991 to a trough of 32.5 per cent in 2007. This reflects a fall-off even in rural areas of the kind of unskilled agricultural labour mentioned above. This in turn is related to broader changes in the Turkish economy, notably a shift away from small-scale agriculture towards employment in the manufacturing and services sectors. For a range of reasons (including female educational disadvantage, as well as the aforementioned negative attitudes to women working) this newer work tends to be done by men.

As with so many of the things that are wrong with Turkish society, problems in the education system play a crucial role here. If significant progress on female labour participation rates is to be made (let alone on gender equality more broadly) then change will need to start with schooling. A way needs to be found to bring the level of education for girls up to that enjoyed by boys. And both girls and boys need to get much clearer signals through the school curriculum about the right of women to make choices about their lives, including the choice to go to work.

  1. […] In a recent post I noted that Turkey’s female labour participation rate (that is, the proportion of women who are in work or looking for work) has been falling since soon after TurkStat’s data series began in 1988. I highlighted the fact that this reflects the combined effects of migration and falling agricultural employment, coupled with pervasive negative attitudes to women working. […]

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