The next big debate in Turkey

The next big debate in Turkey

Turkish women do not get jobs. Turkey is the only OECD country where the female labor force participation rate is lower than 30 percent. Even female Turkish “guest workers” to Germany are working less than their fellow female migrants to that country. There seems to be a strong cultural element here. Is there a solution on the horizon? The result of the next big debate over women in Turkey may bring some answers. This time, the struggle will be among conservative movements, and will certainly have far-reaching consequences.

The first big debate in Turkey was over the right of women to attend university lectures with headscarves. In a country with a significant percentage of women with this head cover, banning them was a terrible way of managing an inclusive growth strategy. It only shows how unprepared Turkey’s elite was for managing the country’s transformation process - but “you snooze, you lose” as they say. The ballot box was bound to catch up with the intransigent elite and bring an end to the issue.

Now looms the next big debate, and this time it is about jobs. On one side, there are conservative fathers who pay the bill for their daughters to leave their homes and attend a university. They decide to dispatch their daughters to participate in life outside the home. On the other side, there are conservative husbands who have never heard of a woman with a career. As the late President Özal liked to say, they will get used to it in time.

Is it going to be easy? No. This will be a structural change. Look at Turkish society’s perception of women’s roles. About 65 percent of women and 61 percent of men identify the main job of women to be domestic work. That has to change.

In the first three months of 2012, practically in the first quarter of the 21st century, 61.6 percent of women in Turkey outside the labor force stated that they preferred this status for fear of neglecting their domestic workload. This means that Turkish women only look for a job if they have to. The job hunt is often seen as degrading. Turkish women tend to work during economic crises and quit as soon as their household income is stabilized. When single, they often participate in life outside their homes, only to retreat after marriage. If they get divorced, they start looking for a job again. This story comes out loud and clear in the numbers.

Turkey’s economy and public life today is deprived of the skills and creativity of half of its population. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the outcome of the next big debate. Any guesses on the winner? Wasn’t the Prophet employed by a female entrepreneur in Mecca?