Women in Turkey: A Background

No, I’m not serving turkey for dinner tonight…instead I want to introduce you to our new weekly column, Turkey Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, I will be sharing anecdotes about living in the beautiful (and complicated) country that is Turkey, with a particular focus on what it is like being a woman here.

I have lived in Istanbul for one and a half years now and you would think that it gets easier. But, every day brings a new challenge, firstly, on a general level, because the country is going through a major transition whilst “straddling the East and the West” (a phrase adored by academics and journalists) and, secondly, on a personal level, because I’m a foreigner, because I have very basic language skills, because the culture is so different, and yes, because I’m a woman.


For this week’s column, I want to give you a bit of background on women in this country. Historically, Turkey has always been a patriarchal society but us girls have come a long way. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, it may seem that women were simply playthings for the sultans, but the women of the Imperial Harem had extreme influence. As many of the sultans were minors when they first came into power, it was their mothers who really made the decisions. When Turkey became a Republic in 1923, the founding father, Atatürk, was adamant in giving women rights as part of his modernization efforts. He banned polygamy and made divorce rights somewhat equal. But there was still a massive gap between formal rights and the social position of women. In the 1930s, Turkey was one of the first countries in Europe to grant women suffrage—Turkish women were able to vote years ahead of their sisters in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Following the 1980 military coup d’état, women’s movements became more prominent. Women from different types of socioeconomic backgrounds met to discuss feminist literature and raise awareness. Predominantly started in the big cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, these groups criticized the traditional family unit and the gender-specific role that was exerted upon women. Since the 1990s, women’s studies have been recognized as a specific strand at universities. In 1993, Turkey elected its first female Prime Minister. In 2002, the Turkish government reformed certain laws in order to equalize the rights of women and men in marriage, divorce, and property allocation. For the first time, family courts were instituted, labor laws prohibited sexism, and programs to improve education for women were established.

But things are not peachy as these facts would have us believe. Large parts of the country still recognize honor killings, which increased from 66 in 2002 to 953 in the first half of 2009. Al-Monitor reported that in 2010, a teenage girl was buried alive simply for befriending boys.

Protest violence against women

Marching for women’s rights: a violence against women protest (source: cnn.com)

And if your life is spared, domestic violence is rife. According to 2009 report by the Turkish government, 42% of the surveyed women have been physically or sexually abused by their husband or partner. Almost half never spoke to anyone about this, and only 8% approached government institutions for support. It is mostly the rural poor that experience domestic violence, however, a staggering one third of women in the highest economic brackets have also been victims. A 2011 United Nations report stated that 39% of women in Turkey had suffered physical violence at some time in their lives, compared with 22% in the United States. Turkey also has one of the biggest sex industries in the world, with 3,000 licensed sex workers and a rumored 100,000 unlicensed “sex slaves.”

Woman cooking Gozleme

Female illiteracy is another major issue, with one out of five women unable to read or write. Illiteracy is particularly prevalent among rural women, who rather than being sent to school get married off as young as 15 so they can take care of their husbands and rear children. The government and various organizations have implemented educational campaigns in southeastern Anatolia to improve literacy rates and education of women but there is still a long way to go. Fewer than 30% of women are in the work force, less than half the European Union average. Out of 26 million employable women in 2011, only 5.9 million were in the labor force. And, 23.4% have either been forced to quit their jobs or have been prevented from working.


Turkey is a country full of contradictions. Women can vote but many are not educated to make the right political choice. Women strive to go to university and get a career but after a few years in the workforce, they are happy to get knocked up by their husbands and never work again (outside the home that is). The government outlaws honor killings on paper, but does not apply them in reality–women’s shelters, for instance, are very scarce.

Turkey has become a country that I love but also one that frustrates me immensely. For my musings on the female plight in this country and personal anecdotes, check in every Tuesday.

Title image: namastegirls.blogspot.com; other images from WikiMedia Commons, unless marked otherwise.


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