“Women without men” in Turkey

Burcu Yakut-Çakar, Kocaeli University & Şemsa Özar, Boğaziçi University – – May 27, 2013Research/Policy Papers

Divorced, widowed, deserted women, women who left their husbands and women with imprisoned husbands, that is, women whose male partners no longer exist in their daily lives are taking a step into a different context. In Turkey, this context implies not only material deprivation and a struggle for daily living but also the need to cope with stigmatizing and discriminatory social attitudes against women.

This research note aims to explore the circumstances facing these women without men in Turkey.[3] We claim that this group of women, which used to be referred to as “the wife of a man”, is important in transcribing the societal value judgements against women. This is primarily because the social status of women – as individuals – is invisible when they live in a family as “mothers”, and more importantly as “wives”. For instance, the changes in the living conditions and deprivation in the aftermath of divorce demonstrate the destructive aspect of the economic dependence of women on men, an aspect that is not as apparent within the family context before divorce. Not only in Turkey, but in almost all societies including high-income countries, female-headed households and particularly lone mothers and elderly widows face higher risks of poverty, showing increased vulnerability of women in the absence of a male breadwinner in the family (for some evidence, see Goldberg and Kremen, 1990; Chant, 2003; Günçavdı and Selim, 2009, Gökovalı and Danışman-Işık, 2010). Moreover, as the saying in Turkey goes “widowed women are easy women [dul kadin kolay kadindir]”, the “honour” of women becomes an issue when men are not around. Therefore, cases when men are absent in women’s daily lives (and when women are not identified in relation to men but “simply” as themselves) are instrumental in reflecting both the material deprivation facing women and the social norms and attitudes towards them.

Next to these entrenched norms, we argue that when their conditions change, women do not receive the necessary support they need from public institutions. We attempt to demonstrate the social norms and attitudes towards women without men, which shape the discriminatory nature of the welfare system that, in return, reinforces them. Our research aims to deepen understanding of the conditions surrounding women without men in Turkey by looking primarily at three domains[4]: (i) the gender division of labour; (ii) marriage/divorce and family relations; and (iii) access to paid work. We argue that gendered social policies would help transforming the dependency of women in these three domains by enabling them to form autonomous households that they can sustain economically (Orloff, 1993: 319).

Revisiting Orloff’s trilogy in Turkey

The gender division of labour in households assigns the maintenance of livelihood of the household to men while delegating unpaid domestic work and care for family members to women. This is legitimized by the patriarchal structure dominating domestic relations and social life in Turkey, based on the assumption that the differential roles taken on by women and men are in line with their “inborn” differences. The latest available time use data show that women in Turkey spend, on average, 5 hours 17 minutes during a day for household and home care including child care, elderly care as well as laundry, cooking, ironing etc. while men spend only 51 minutes on male household care activities defined as dealing with in-house construction and repair activities (TURKSTAT, 2007). This gendered division of labour assigning unpaid domestic activities to women is also reflected in the accumulation of material wealth and savings over time. The Family Structure Survey reveals the inequality of the distribution of wealth and property within households, where 80,2% of women compared to 39,6% of men do not own property such as real estate or a vehicle (TURKSTAT, 2006:3).

In terms of marriage and family relations, the family in Turkey appears as the founding and “sacred” element of the social structure the unity of which should be maintained and sustained in any circumstance. In this respect, self-altruism by women has been the primal norm for the “continuity of the family”. Despite the recent increase in divorce rates, Turkey still ranks in lower strata in cross-country comparisons, e.g. 1.59 thousandth compared to the EU-27 average of 2.0 thousandth (EUROSTAT, 2010). Research evidence shows that psychological and/or physical violence against women ranks as one of the main reasons for divorce, while prevalence of domestic violence is independent of the level of education, profession and income level.

In such a context where a gendered division of labour within the household delegates all domestic care services to women and where women lack public support in the provision of care services for children, elderly and disabled, it becomes nearly impossible for women to engage in paid work outside the household. Hence, labour force participation of women is around 27% in Turkey – increasing around their 20s and then showing a significant decline after marriage and birth of the first child and over the life course of women. Approximately 12 million women outside the labour force are housewives. Women represent only 30% of total employment in Turkey, half of which – and more than one-third outside of agriculture – is not covered by social security (TURKSTAT, 2012). Thus, the unequal gender division of labour within the household is reflected in the labour market in Turkey where women tend to be trapped in low paying jobs and indecent working conditions.

The three interrelated aspects of our framework show that women provide care services within the bonding ties of family life as mothers, daughters and wives, while they are almost completely dependent on men for mere survival. Thus, when breadwinning men no longer exist for reasons such as death, imprisonment or divorce, women – in most cases with their dependent children – find them in ultimate deprivation lacking almost any opportunities to maintain their household afterwards.

The struggle to make ends meet

Our research provides ample evidence to show the interrelations between different domains and the challenges that women without men face. Households headed by these women have lower levels of income and, thus, lack sufficient resources to meet basic needs such as food, heating, clothing, household appliances and education expenses of children. Moreover, women without men suffer from high levels of debt – especially to the grocer, the butcher etc. demonstrating the inadequacy of household income to meet basic needs. These households are also burdened with problems related to housing such as rent, electricity and water bills, especially affecting those women without men who have dependent children.

“I pay 450 TL rent, if I am not evacuated this month there will be a rent increase, and I have not paid the rent for six months, see the situation, I don’t know where to find money and how to pay it… In such times with inflation it is so difficult to earn one’s living with five students, I think one cannot understand it without living through it.” (Age 33, spouse in prison, İstanbul)

 “I am a tenant, at the moment I use my electricity illegally… I have two months of rent to pay, the landlord comes, shouting and shouting, I cannot face him and tell him anything…My gas tube finishes, you cannot renew your gas tube for 3-4 days, what will you then prepare for the children??… At times when I could not give pocket money, my children did not want to go to school.” (Age 30, widowed, Bursa)

As mentioned above, economic difficulties facing women without men are aggravated when they are constrained in access to paid work due to their responsibility of caring for their dependent children. These women are inevitably obliged to work in flexible, part-time and low-income jobs without social security, such as cleaning stairs or taking piecemeal home-based work. Because marriage is an obstacle in labour force participation of women over the course of life, women without men are often in a disadvantaged position when they need to look for employment because they lack work experience, and have no profession of their own. Even well-educated women cannot find decent jobs and are obliged to take on jobs that are not suited to their level of education and income needs.

“I clean stairs, I do some domestic work, my elder daughter makes beads. She can’t earn more than 10TL a day, but there is not even work available every day.”(Age 30, deserted by her spouse, İstanbul)

“For 11 years I worked in whatever job I found… I am a university graduate but I cleaned stairs, I went to work at a garment manufacturer and worked there almost day and night, I took piecework to do at home … I was responsible to earn the living for the home … I tried but could not find work with insurance, all like this half-day, house cleaning… Before marriage, I had worked as an accountant at a company but when I married, my husband did not let me work. Had I worked that time I would not be deprived like this, he did not even have regular work… At the moment I am cleaning stairs, I have four stair-cleaning jobs, I approximately get a total of 300 TL in monthly income….” (Age 42, widowed, İstanbul)

The prevalence of informality in the labour market in Turkey strikes women without men twice: not only are women trapped in jobs without social security but the persistence of unregistered employment for their spouses deprives them of any pension entitlement as dependent, causing high risk of poverty. Moreover, institutions in charge of employment services do not function efficiently and tend not to provide support to women without men to maintain autonomous households. Hence, vocational training courses offered are either focused on male jobs or overemphasize certain groups of jobs such as embroidery, elderly or childcare etc. This does not contribute much to the earning potential of the household.

“…I work at the quality control department, no insurance, nothing, 150 TL per week, I have no insurance, the owner says that he can provide insurance but only if I pay half of the charges. I cannot afford this, even if he would increase my salary..” (Age 35, divorced, İstanbul)

“My husband was a driver, he did not have any insurance, if he had we would not have been in this situation today… I never worked; I had an operation in my stomach as well.” (Age 35, widowed, Bursa)

Stigmatizing society

Besides the constraints imposed by gendered division of labour and limited opportunities in the labour market, our study shows that women without men are also constrained in maintaining an autonomous households by value judgements of society towards women living without spouses.  In the words of one of our interviewees:

“Besides monetary difficulties, there are also other difficulties. I call it the distress of being a widowed woman. You know, widowed woman is always a widowed woman… Everyone around thinks that she definitely acts dishonourably” (Age 42, widowed, İstanbul)

Such value judgements also reinforce existing economic problems of women without men as, for instance, through the attitude of landlords. Moreover, some women will deliberately limit their own freedom to avoid stigmatization.

“I mean, I should take care not to give the wrong impression. No, I  do not go out much, I go to work from home, come home from work. People  around me do not interest me much… People’s eyes are on us. I can imagine that their eyes are on me. You  have to watch yourself.” (Age 46, divorced, Trabzon) 

No home is safe

Women without men experience direct and indirect incidents of violence, abuse and harassment from their ex-spouses, their own families and relatives, and the family members and relatives of their former spouses. Society indirectly imposes violence on women by, for instance, rejecting complaints of the women subjected to violence by her spouse or brother in-law to the local police office, because “such issues among wife and spouse do not constitute a crime”[5]. The incidents of direct violence experienced by our interviewees were primarily from their own families or the relatives of their spouses:

“My mother in-law beat me on one side, and my husband beat me on the other side. If you see my abdomen it is all cut… Taking me here and there since I could not have a child, some said this, some others said that as a reason. She said it is because of you. Not even once did my mother in-law say that it could be because of her son and that she should take him for a control. Then after 9 years we separated. Despite everything, he attempted to kill me, he was pushing the pillow down on my face; he attempted to kill me. I said ’why are you doing this?’ He said ‘you can’t have a child’. I say ‘then leave me’. He would not leave or divorce either. I wanted to get back to my family but my father did not accept me. He said there is no divorce in our family and closed the subject.” (Divorced, age 45, Denizli) 

 “He became worse after becoming a husband, there was also violence and no work  either (the neighbouring woman translating from Kurdish) : “she does not complain,  since she is subjected to violence by her mother in-law, father in-law and others, so to whom will she complain? When she goes to her own father, it becomes worse, as if they disturb my family. Actually once she was subjected to such severe violence, she was in such a bad situation that her family came to take her… Her husband got a gun, he tied her, saying that they could not get his wife… And she was afraid and said she would not go””(Age 23, spouse in prison, İstanbul)

One could consider women’s shelter houses for victims of violence but our research findings point to institutional constraints such as low levels of capacity, short duration of the stay and the lack of opportunities to maintain autonomous living conditions for women –especially with dependent children- after their stay.

No more autonomy outside the family

As illustrated by the quotations from interviews above, the gender division of labour, family relations and conditions in the labour market in Turkey prevent women without men – either alone or with dependent children – from having autonomous livelihoods. More generally, we argue that income inequality, the prevalence of informal employment and a lack of decent working conditions in the labour market, gender inequalities and discriminatory attitudes reinforce the constraining conditions surrounding women in all domains of social and economic life. Thus, under these circumstances, it seems considerably difficult for women to maintain an independent living as autonomous individuals “without men”. Hence, we suggest prioritizing public policies aimed at transforming the labour market, while tackling income inequality, gender inequalities and discriminatory practices. Policy interventions should not only provide an immediate response to the short-term needs of women without men but also help maintain conditions for women to sustain autonomous living as independent individuals. Thus, we recommend policies aimed at structural transformation, instead of arbitrary policy interventions that merely tackle the symptoms of these structural problems.

The Ministry of Family and Social Policies introduced a cash benefit scheme for widowed women without social security in April 2012 based on the findings of this research. The scheme should target 150.000 widowed women in Turkey, not addressing other women without men, such as divorced women, a group of some 20.000 women according to the estimates of the report (Ozar et al., 2011).

We would emphasize that widowed women are categorically considered to deserve the right to be protected by the state using public resources, thus maintaining the continuity of the family despite the loss of the male breadwinner. Divorced women, who are intentionally outside this family norm, are ignored by public policy and hence implicitly punished. Such policy discourse avoids public support for divorced women, seeing that it would help them maintaining an autonomous living outside the family norm, as independent individuals. In short, women without men in Turkey, as we described in this paper, constitute a prominent example that shows how policy discourse, social value judgements and contemporary conditions in the labour market coalesce to reproduce, support and reinforce discriminatory and unequal attitudes towards women in Turkey.

Burcu Yakut-Çakar, Kocaeli University and Şemsa Özar, Boğaziçi University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Yakut-Çakar, Burcu & Özar, Şemsa (May, 2013), ““Women without men” in Turkey”, Vol. II, Issue 3, pp.61-69, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3313)


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[1] Kocaeli University, burcu.yakut@boun.edu.tr

[2] Bogazici University, ozar@boun.edu.tr

[3] It is based on the findings of a study involving a nation-wide survey covering 1220 divorced and widowed women within the 18-65 age group and in-depth interviews carried out in 6 provinces with widowed, divorced and deserted women and women with imprisoned spouses. With the contribution of Volkan Yilmaz, Asli Orhon and Pinar Gumus as the research team led by the authors, the final report of the study is available online at http://www.spf.boun.edu.tr/content_files/SYDGM_NihaiRapor_ENG.pdf.

[4] Our theoretical framework is very much inspired by Ann Orloff’s approach that clearly sets out the role of public policies in defining the status of women in society by alleviating or reinforcing gender inequality (for details see Orloff, A. S. (1993) “Gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States”, American Sociological Review, 58(3), 303-328). We have built our theoretical framework on the basis of Orloff’s argument describing the three main domains within which this interaction takes place.

[5] Milliyet, http://www.milliyet.com.tr/bir-gunde-3-kez-dayak-yiyen-kadin-polislerden-de-sikayetci-oldu/turkiye/sondakikaarsiv/13.09.2010/1278437/default.htm  (19 Ağustos 2010)