ISTANBUL – Derya Gizem Ust, 19, has wanted to study law for as long as she can remember.
“Since I was a little girl,” says Ust, a sophomore at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “It probably had something [to do] with me being a woman.”
Ust is one of around 40 percent of young Turkish women attending university, a rate that’s not much lower than that of American women in higher education. But while those figures seem to point to progressive attitudes toward women’s empowerment in Turkey, the reality is very different.
Although a decent number of Turkish women make it to university, only 11 percent graduate (in the U.S., the figure is just over 30 percent). The number who move on to study for a master’s or a PhD and then build a thriving career is even smaller. From gender bias in high schools to societal pressures to marry and start a family, the obstacles that contribute to Turkey’s workforce gender gap are insurmountable for many of the country’s women.
“In high school, I was staying in a dorm with girls who were determined to graduate and go to university,” Ust says. “Even though some in their families did not want them to go, they were determined anyway.”
In the Turkish education system, girls and boys start on an almost equal footing. The government has made it a priority to give all children, especially girls, a basic education, putting money into constructing high school dormitories to cut down on transportation costs, distributing free textbooks and encouraging teachers to visit girls and their families to convince them to send their daughters to school.
Ust says she has benefited from these developments, but she also sees flaws in the culture surrounding girls in education. For example, when she was attending high school in Tarebolu, in the Black Sea region of Turkey, science and biology classes were taught only by male teachers. “When we were talking about sexual differences in the genders, it was always awkward,” she says. “We [girls] felt excluded because they would only address the boys and could not look us in the eyes. We really felt left out.”
The pressure for girls to stay home starts when high school ends and college looms on the horizon. “Many times the expectation is that girls get married or work in the home to help the family instead of going to university,” says Candan Fetvaci, director of the Aydin Dogan Vakfi Foundation, which focuses on helping young women gain an education and make the transition to the workforce.
Large families often can’t afford to send all their children to school, and Turkey’s cultural mentality holds that as long as girls are able to read and write, there is no reason for them to go on to university.
Even if they do make it as far as higher education, young women will continue to feel pressure to get married instead. In Turkey, the median age of first birth for women is 22.5, according to the CIA World Fact Book.
“It makes me feel very sad,” says Ust. “For a lot of girls in my class, it is like a taboo to tell their parents they may not want to marry or have children at all.”
Advocates say that cultural attitudes toward women in education are driving a gaping gender division in Turkey’s working population. According to the World Bank, only 30 percent of the Turkish workforce is female, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says 42.9 percent of women in Turkey between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed, compared with just 15.1 percent of men in the same age range.
Fetvaci sees the solution as a shift in both policy and mentality. “Maternal leave for mothers varies anywhere between two weeks and, if they are lucky, a month,” Fetvaci says. “There are no policies governing maternal leave, paternal leave or equal pay of men and women.”
And policy can change, Fetvaci says, only if there are more women in parliament to change it. Currently, just 17 percent of Turkish parliament members are women, according to Turkey’s state-run media, the Anadolu Agency. But once women are in a position to change the laws, they can start to work on changing minds. “If women can influence policy, maybe they can begin to influence mentality,” says Fetvaci.
For girls still fighting against the odds to graduate from high school, get through university and find work, Ust gives advice that is both hopeful and cautionary.
“I would tell girls who want to study that they need to struggle until the very end,” she says.
Reporting for this story was done with the support of the International Center for Journalists in Istanbul. Special thanks to Batu Tercuman for providing translation services.