The Multiple Worlds of Turkish Women
When Zülal Topçu, my mother, boarded the airplane bound for Hamburg in June 1972, she had no idea of what to expect in that foreign city. 33 years old, she had arrived at the airport in Istanbul with a small suitcase.
She had left her husband and three children aged seven, nine and twelve behind because my father’s civil servant salary was not sufficient to support the family. "We simply did not know how to solve our financial problems," she says today.
Pioneer migrant women
At that time, the Federal Republic of Germany needed workers. Newspapers and the radio in Turkey reported on the situation and got people talking. Eventually, Zülal Topçu began considering migration.
She was recruited by a chocolate factory. A Turkish member of the staff picked her up from the airport and took her to the workers' accommodation. The prospect of work and income had lured other mothers into the unknown too. My mother shared a room with five other Turkish migrant women; she worked hard and saved money.
One year and two months later, the family followed. Once my father had found a position in his profession as a teacher, my mother went back to being a housewife. My father is now retired and the couple commutes between Germany and Turkey. Their three daughters have finished university, are involved with German men and feel at home here.
Zülal Topçu was one of the "pioneer migrant women". The German public hardly knows anything about them even though they have similar life stories to tell. Germans tend to consider Turkish women as victims of a patriarchal society shaped by religious beliefs.
Female Muslims are believed to be oppressed, forced into marriage and beaten by men. The media nurture such clichéd prejudices. Therefore, head scarves and Turkish woman have become synonymous in Germany, even though only a minority of women from Turkey cover their hair.
Norms and their interpretation
It cannot be denied that there are a number of Turkish families in Germany that cling to strict values and norms. They do not permit women to assume any other than traditional roles.
It is not uncommon for the men of these families to interpret traditional rules even more rigidly than is normally done in their home country. Often, their attitude results from feelings of insecurity or exclusion abroad.
The personal circumstances of Turkish women in Germany, however, vary greatly. The gender roles among the Turkish migrant community cannot be sweepingly divided into traditional or modern.
"Different orientations can develop, depending on the level of urbanisation and education," says Yasemin Karakasoglu, researcher on migration and professor at the University of Bremen.
For outsiders, it is difficult to understand this variety, especially as the image presented in public does not necessarily correspond to the actual power relations within a family.
A look at the first phase of migration from Turkey shows that the predominant image of "the Turkish woman" is in need of correction. After all, more than 20 percent of the so-called guest workers, who were recruited, were women.
They arrived alone – and usually of their own accord. They were looking for professional opportunities and many actually enjoyed the support of male family members for doing so. Most of them came from an urban environment and were educated.
The problems of labour migration
It was only in the second phase of migration, which started in the early 1970s, that women from rural areas followed. Often, male family members forced them to leave their home. In this period, job prospects for men had worsened, not least because German companies were increasingly employing women.
Labour migration did pose problems for some Turkish women. It was easier for single women over 18 to leave the country than for younger migrants, who needed a notarial declaration of consent from their parents. Married women had to present a written permission form their husbands.
Families and relatives were afraid of gossip, while the men worried about their honour. The women had to promise to bring their husbands to Germany as soon as possible.
Liberation from restrictive relationships
These pledges were not always lived up to. After all, the trip to Germany also meant liberation from restrictive relationships for quite a few female migrants. They took advantage of the chance to escape dysfunctional marriages or unwanted weddings.
Uneducated Turkish men saw women as second-rate beings obliged to obey. Their patriarchal view was not challenged by life abroad. The self-perception of the women concerned, however, did change considerably. Social scientist Nermin Abadan-Unat speaks of Turkish women’s enhanced self-confidence.
This is even observable in the case of women who did not voluntarily decide to migrate. Nermin Abdan-Unat admits that women from rural regions, "brought up traditionally, totally unprepared intellectually" and "without any knowledge of life in the city, highly disciplined working conditions or production standards" indeed found it difficult to get used to their new surroundings. Nevertheless, their entry into the complex industrial society did not have an unfavourable effect.
"Even if the guest workers have great difficulties adapting to their work, this is how they become familiar with factory work, discipline, awareness of time and punctuality, trade union activities and social entitlements. All these are things they were absolutely unfamiliar with before leaving their country. Moreover, other factors such as more comfortable apartments, urban life and being exposed to mass media prepare the ground for a certain emancipation of the women."
Things went differently for women from the villages of Anatolia, who, after the German recruitment ban of the early 70s, followed their husbands to reunite the family in the third migration phase.
These uneducated women had no prior urban experience. Their chances of finding work were poor because of the increasingly tight labour market in Germany. They typically lacked job-relevant qualifications. With neither schooling nor knowledge of German, they lived uprooted and isolated from the majority society. Many still live this way today.
This was also to became the fate of many "import brides". In 1985, the film "40 Quadratmeter Deutschland" (40 Square Metres of Germany) adequately told the story of a marriage migrant. The bride was locked up by her husband and was not allowed to leave the small apartment by herself.
More recently, Necla Kelek, a sociologist from Hamburg, has depicted such biographies in her book "Die fremde Braut" (the unknown bride). Some Turkish women agree to arranged marriages, in the hope of an interesting life and more opportunities for personal development in Germany.
Thanks to the media, these import brides are no longer totally naive when they arrive here, but many still experience tough shocks. They are forced into an isolated life in an extremely restricted environment and have little opportunity to learn German.
Often the husbands feel threatened by the mere possibility that their wives might adapt to local norms. It is not without reason they decided to marry a woman from Turkey. Turkish girls, who have grown up here, are normally considered to have become too independent by men of the second and third migrant generation.
The daughters of the immigrants
Many daughters of Turkish migrants are very keen on education. Their ambitions result in a large number of female Turkish students at German universities. It increased almost tenfold from 1980 to 1996, whereas the number of male students only increased 2.5 times.
In the winter of 2002/2003 there were 24000 Turkish citizens studying at German Universities, 9300 of whom were female. The figure for female students had grown by four percent compared to the winter before, while the one for male students had only increased by 0.8 percent. However, as many migrant children have chosen to become German citizens, the official statistics do not tell the whole story.
The image of the helpless Turkish girl, often portrayed by the media, does not tally with the results of empirical research, points out academic Karakasoglu.
According to her, young Turkish women of the second and third generation do not see "any contradiction between the 'modern life' and individualism on the one hand and their intense family orientation, the inevitability of a marriage, the denial of premarital sexual relationships and the belief in the Islamic religion on the other".
Many German women believe that starting a family would be incompatible with personal growth, but young women with a Turkish background see things differently.
They do not mind gender specific divisions of labour in the household as long as their husbands cooperate closely in the interest of the family. Germans, on the other hand, tend to want to split all tasks evenly among husband and wife.
Head scarves as a voluntary expression
Speaking of religion, the pictures portrayed in the German media of women wearing head scarves, which often accompany reports on Turkish women, are misleading. Most women from Turkey do not cover their hair and therefore remain inconspicuous in public.
Over and over again, the focus is directed at the young migrant women who make their faith visible. This is met with a lack of understanding in German society and is viewed as a symbol of oppression.
Social scientists, however, interpret young women's conscious devotion to Islam as "an act of emancipation from a religion of their parents' generation that is perceived as traditional, ritualised and bereft of meaning".
Wearing the head scarf is in no way a symbol of outdated tradition but is rather "the appropriation of an individual life scheme". That some daughters of immigrant families do develop rigid ideas of Islam, probably says more about German society, which is still frequently felt to be hostile, than about the family's original culture.
© Development and Cooperation 2005
This article was previously published in Development and Cooperation 03/2005.
Canan Topçu is an urban affairs editor of the German daily 'Frankfurter Rundschau' and focuses on multicultural topics.