Sunday, April 24, 2011

Women, the Headscarf, and Discrimination in the Work Place

This month the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), one of the country's leading think-tanks, released a study examining employment discrimination against women who wear the headscarf. While the headscarf has long been a controversial issue in the public arena (for more, click here and here), much less attention has been paid to the issue in the private realm. What obstacles are faced by women who wear the headscarf and do manage to graduate from university (or, for those who may choose to don it after graduation)? For the report, authored by TESEV's Dilek Cindoglu, click here.

The rate of women's employment in Turkey is lower than any other OECD  country--21.6%, and down from 34.3% in 1988. The average in the European Union is 57%. Female employment has been dropping for a variety of reasons, among them the decline in agricultural employment. However, apart from structural changes to the economy, a number of impediments prevent women from entering the workforce, including the low level of female education, the lack of adequate childcare facilities, sexual harassment, and conservative attitudes when it comes to women working and leaving the house/traveling about. Another is no doubt the systematic labor discrimination that women who choose to wear the headscarf face both in terms of getting a job and no doubt once they are in a job as well.

The headscarf has long been seen as an obstacle to women's employment, though camps on both sides of the issue face the issue differently. Pro-headscarf advocates argue that limitations on covered women entering university poses a serious hindrance to their position in higher-level unemployment, and that once out of university, women continue to face discrimination, and often, outright ridicule. Proponents of restrictions on headscarves, including some women's rights groups, argue the headscarf is a function of conservative, patriarchal attitudes, and that frequently it is the attitudes of covered women's families, most importantly, their husbands, that keep them out of the workplace. This study very much disputes this notion in documenting cases where women choose to work, and in many cases, where their employment is necessary to the livelihood of their family. Cindoglu, along with Ebru Ilhan, published a similar study on the subject last summer.

Last fall, Richard Peres wrote an excellent article in Today's Zaman discussing the issue, as well as the prospects for Turkey to adopt a remedy along the lines of the affirmative action policies the United States put in place for African Americans in the 1960s. From Peres's article (which I stumbled upon thanks to Jenny White at Kamil Pasha, who adds some thoughts of her own here):
In addition to professionals, women who wear headscarves face perhaps the largest and most difficult barrier in white collar jobs. Preference is given to uncovered women for the better positions in private industry, such as office and information workers, as well as sales positions. The reasons vary from simple prejudice against covered women to organizations not wanting to be viewed as fundamentalist. According to a report by AKDER in November 2008, “Even in sectors for production of commercial goods and services, the employment level of the women who wear the headscarf is low.”

I have a friend who wears a headscarf who had to go to Cyprus for her college degree. She is bilingual -- she helped me interview Turks for a book I am writing -- but has been unable to find a white collar job for over a year. Often when she shows up for an interview, she finds that the position has been mysteriously filled or is no longer available. She has little recourse but to keep trying or to migrate to another country.
. . . .

s Turkey ready to implement a remedy for discrimination against covered women like the American experience? I doubt it. The reason: The American civil rights movement was the result of a long political struggle that mobilized millions of people throughout the country to bring about change. African-Americans and women did not sit back and wait for one political party or another to effect change, or for an agency like the Higher Education Board (YÖK) to send a letter. They got organized, influenced elections directly, exposed discrimination, fought cases in court, ran for elections, and put real political pressure on state legislatures and the US Congress. Waiting for the government to act was not enough to bring about landmark legislation with real enforcement power and supportive agencies to handle and investigate complaints, and go to court on the behalf of complainants if necessary.
That said, there is a decent amount of activism on the issue, like this TESEV report, as well as from organizations like the Women’s Rights Association Against Discrimination (AK-DER). Nonetheless, I have met more than covered woman who has told me she does not participate in such activism because the cause seems hopeless, etc. Yet, last fall's relaxing of headscarf requirements at university and the amount of progress being made on the issue is likely to spark more activism and pressure.

If you should be in Washington, Cinodoglu will present the study at SETA-DC tomorrow at 12 p.m. Merve Kavakci will serve as discussant. Click here for event details.

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