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Women vanish from Turkey's working world

Turkey prides itself on being a modern country with equal rights for women. But when it comes to women in the workplace, there seems to be a problem. A ban on headscarves may be part of it.

Two women wearing headscarves

The headscarf hurts the chances of many job-seekers

According to World Bank and OECD figures, fewer women work in Turkey than in any other country from Europe to Central Asia, including most Muslim countries. While women's participation in the labor market has been rising steadily in other countries, it's been falling in Turkey for decades. Now the percentage of women in the Turkish labor force is lower than in Afghanistan and Algeria.

Only one in five Turkish women work - down from one in three in the 1980s. Female university graduates and professional women have also withdrawn from the Turkish labor market over the past couple of decades - a trend the World Bank has dubbed "a puzzle." Neslihan Akbulut, a 27-year-old Turkish sociologist, sees nothing puzzling about it.

Akbulut graduated from university in Sweden with a Masters degree and returned to Turkey to find a job.

"At first, I went after jobs that would match my qualifications," Akbulut said, "but of course no one would hire me. Then I applied for lesser positions in my field, then to lower jobs outside my field, even in a shop, but I was not hired."

Now she earns a nominal wage working as secretary for an NGO that defends the rights of women who wear headscarves - like her.

Headscarf hurdle

Seventy percent of Turkish women wear headscarves, making them ineligible for employment by the state. Headscarves were banned in all public offices and universities after the 1980 military coup.

A woman wearing a headscarf writes in a notebook

Even with an education, women looking for work in Turkey have a tough time

But women don't fare much better in the private sector, according to Dilek Cindoglu, a professor of sociology at Ankara's Bilkent University, who carried out the first scientific study of the problem.

"Professional women in headscarves are discriminated against in the workplace," Cindoglu said. "Even a secretary in a small business must visit the public tax office occasionally or run errands to other government offices or to clients. Women in headscarves cannot go to all these places. So the public ban on headscarves definitely affects the private sector as well."

This "spillover effect," as she calls it, means that lawyers in headscarves cannot enter a courtroom, and journalists in headscarves are barred from parliament. Cindoglu found obstacles to women in headscarves in almost every profession, albeit to varying degrees. Her findings echo Nesluhan Akbulut's experience.

"Companies worry about their image," Akbulut said. "As a sociologist, I applied for a job as pollster in a polling company, but they told me they couldn't afford to send out an interviewer in a headscarf - it would prejudice the interviewees."

Better chances abroad

When professional women in headscarves are hired, they are often tucked away out of sight in back rooms and paid significantly less than men or bareheaded women, according to Professor Cindoglu's findings. That's something Akbulut is not prepared to accept any longer.

"I cannot work in my profession here," she said. "At best I can continue to work as a secretary, but that is not how I want to live my life. My husband and I have therefore decided to leave Turkey and live abroad."

Akbulut won't be alone in leaving the country. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 young Turkish women are currently studying at universities abroad because they are barred from entering universities in their own country. Given their lack of professional prospects in Turkey, many never return.

Author: Susanne Guesten, Istanbul
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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