How My Upbringing In Turkey Has Shaped My Perspective On Gender Equality & Progress

By Selin Özünaldım

As young women, we are told from a young age that it is hard to live in this world as a woman. I was asked to write about the challenges women and girls face, and the state of gender equality in my home country of Turkey. While there are many aspects of my culture that are unique to us, most of what we experience is universal.

The struggle of being a girl begins right after birth. They are called ‘princesses’. From the moment they take their first breath, society begins to teach them how they should look, what they should wear, how they should sit, and even how to laugh, which leads to numerous negative impacts on girls’ mental and physical health, as documented by WHO. By the time girls are seven, they start to imagine their wedding dresses and husbands, instead of a career that could make them leaders in their field. They wait for their prince to save them from the tower, instead of standing up for themselves and carving their own path through life. This all comes from what we are subconsciously shown and taught.

The gender-stereotypical mindset of the society can be seen quite easily by visiting a child’s clothing store or department. You will notice the boys’ clothes have designs and figures about power, being the hero, saving the world, and going on adventures. On the other side, girls’ clothing is about fragile symbols, butterflies, rainbows… ‘I am too pretty to do math’, messages that focus on their looks rather than what they can achieve or do. These designs are trickle-down proof of inequality in societal norms and culture, fueled by media and fashion companies, which despite possessing the appearance of being feminine and female-dominated, are actually major patriarchal bastions.

As girls grow older, the issues they face also grow with them. As attested by PSYCOM, eating disorders can start as early as the age of 12. Young girls, trying to live up to the standards that society sets for them, pursue unhealthy eating habits which could end up hurting their health in the long run. As stated by Gen Psych, an estimated 0.5 to 3.7 per cent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime. According to the BBC, anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness. Moreover, as maintained by ANAD, each year, 5 to 10 out of 100 patients die because of this eating disorder.

The issue becomes even more heightened with the added toxic effect of social media. It can be such a hostile environment. Millions of photos are being deleted by their owners because of hate comments. These widespread problems truly demonstrate the overwhelmingly negative impact societal expectations and cultural norms combined with social media can have on women.

Over the years the little ‘princesses’ grow up and begin to work so they can make money and support themselves. Society gives them the misconception that they have the same opportunity as men and that there is no need for feminism. Conversely, this only nourishes the pre-existing sexist social norms such as the wage disparity between men and women. Both domestically and internationally, multiple statistics show men are earning much more than women.

Although there are people who would like to claim that the wage gap is a myth, this creates an even higher need for awareness around these issues. It is imperative to teach the youth of tomorrow the facts: that these disparities are real and that women need to have more equality in both the workplace and in the wages they make.

Growing up in a strong patriarchal society as Turkey, I had the chance to observe the historical reasons behind gender inequality. One of the key reasons is several centuries of past wars. Physical power was needed in those ages, which left women in the background. Although women historical hero figures such as Karafatma, Halide Onbaşı give away their lives for their country, they have never been as appreciated in history as the men have been. Even in the 21st century we are struggling to see women’s contributions to history become as well known and as well documented as men’s.

Women have had to prove their existence, their creative potential and intelligence at the forefront of many industries and eras. It has paid off in a way, because today there are reports from the OECD and European Union’s research covering 41 countries that show 37.11% of STEM graduates in Turkey are women, which makes Turkey rank first on the list. Despite this high rate, female employment in the technology sector is only 9.91%. History, once again, repeats itself… not with guns this time but with such sexist terms as ‘female brain’ which is nothing but falsification, as claimed by Futurism.

Women for decades have had to fight for their place in society, and though this fight for our rights might seem daunting, Turkish girls like me can thankfully look to the example of inspiring Turkish women who have made their own in this world like Aylin Uysal who is the Senior Design Director at Oracle, or Ayşegül İldeniz who is the Vice President of New Technologies and Strategies at Intel. They got themselves to a place of importance and fought against the hardships of this biased world. We owe it to ourselves, our daughters, our sisters and our mothers to create a world where we have a place that we do not need to fight for.

We know that from the moment a girl is born, reaching her full academic and social potential is a constant struggle. Fighting against the toxicity of social media, the patriarchy, as well as societal norms is a task only overcome through unity and empowerment. That is why it is important now, more than ever, to unite as a whole and make the change all women around the world can benefit from, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or religion. 

Selin Özünaldım is the youngest representative of the HeForShe movement in Turkey and a Gender Youth Activist for the United Nations. She writes articles and reports on social problems. You can follow her on Instagram and connect with her on Linkedin.

Comments are closed.