ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Sosin and her family moved from rural Turkey to Istanbul, the country’s largest city, and for four years she did not leave the house, not even to buy food for her children.

“I was afraid to be lost. I never saw any place outside the house. We would be starving with the children until evening when my husband would come home,” she told researchers with the Istanbul-based Basak Culture and Art Foundation. Its findings were published last year in the book, “What Has Changed? Kurdish Women’s Experiences with Forced Migration.”

“Women are generally more active in their villages, where they work in fields, walk around and have a social life,” Nese Erdilek, administrative director of the Center for Migration Research at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told Women’s eNews. “In the city, the whole family is under pressure and fearful of the outside world. Social pressure [on women] is a kind of defense for the family.”

Erdilek said women are often not part of the decision to move and have less experience in surroundings other than their rural or small-town homes.

Agricultural upheavals, lack of economic opportunity and, more recently, violence and political pressure in Turkey’s largely Kurdish eastern and southeastern regions — where Sosin comes from — have driven repeated waves of internal migration since the late 1940s. Many families find their way to Istanbul, home to a fifth of the country’s population and accounting for nearly half of its wealth. In the process, Turkey has been completely transformed, from 25 percent urban in 1950 to 75 percent urban today.

For women caught up in this migration, the uprooting can be particularly harsh.

A Greater Dependency

Some women from the Kurdish ethnic minority group, such as Sosin, don’t speak Turkish when they arrive. This leaves them more dependent on male family members, since state policies prohibit the official use of the Kurdish language.

“Since they do not know the language, they are imprisoned in a way in their houses,” Erdilek said. “Their only contact with the outside world is through their husbands and children.”

Rural women are often particularly ill-equipped for city life due to conservative cultural norms that can limit their access to education and employment. Illiteracy rates throughout the country’s eastern regions are double the national average of 11 percent, hitting 29 percent in southeast Turkey, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Social Research (BETAM) at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. Women account for the vast majority, around 80 percent, of illiterate people in nearly all regions of Turkey, BETAM noted.

“Many women say they wanted to work outside the home but their families wouldn’t allow them to go to school, so they have no occupational skills,” Zozan Ozgokce of the Van Women’s Association, a nongovernmental organization working in eastern Turkey, told Women’s eNews at the 12th International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development, held here in late April.

“Women are seen as supposed to be good wives and mothers, not lawyers or engineers,” Ozgokce added. “And many men won’t marry a woman who has worked outside the home — she is seen as having lost her honor.”

More Opportunities, Freedom

Some women do find greater opportunities and freedom in the urban setting, despite Turkey’s overall low level of female employment. But often those women who are able to join the work force are limited by their lack of marketable skills — and, sometimes, by anti-Kurdish prejudice — and commonly work in dangerous and easily exploitable occupations in domestic work, seasonal labor, textile and food-processing factories in addition to the informal economy.

In 2010, 51 women died, more than 400 were raped or assaulted and more than 1,000 were occupationally injured while employed as domestic workers, according to Muazzez Onuk Ozder, the deputy head of the Social Services Department in the southeastern city of Diyarbak?r.

Language barriers and an alien environment often leave women, in particular, unable to seek recourse when they suffer abuses, or even receive basic health care and other social services. As a result, many migrant women say “they had better conditions when living on their farms with their livestock,” Ayten Tekes, from the Research Center for Women’s Affairs in the southeastern city of Diyarbak?r, said at the Istanbul forum.

“Women had agricultural know-how in their villages that is lost,” Tekes said, when they move to cities. “Gender discrimination against them increases due to their loss of skills, confidence and community ties.”

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Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she writes about environmental, social and urban issues, as well as the arts, culture and travel.

For more information:

Turkey, The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre:

The Kurdish Question, TESEV: