Going to Europe? I think not!

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Turkey and the EU: the negotiations about access might not go so smoothly, and probably only in about ten or fifteen years will Turkey be part of the EU. And then of course, many Europeans fear, hordes of Turks will come to Europe to find work. In reality the Turkish economy is growing, the country is rapidly developing, and anyone having a higher education has no reason to leave the country. Also, for better educated women the future is in Turkey.

Photography: Allard de Witte

(Şebnem Nantu)

Friday night at the Club Angelique in Ortaköy, an entertainment district in European Istanbul. It’s autumn, but the evening air is still warm. So it’s crowded on the dance floor, which is situated in the open air right next to the Bosporus and is accessed through big sliding doors. Container ships, ferries and pleasure craft pass by, and earlier that evening enormous fire works were exploding over the big illuminated Bosporus Bridge, of which you have a spectacular view from Angelique’s dance floor.
Esra Özbey (38) is sitting inside at the bar, talking with a friend. She comes to Angelique regularly. She works at Dogan TV, a media group with more then 30 TV channels, where she is in charge of all interactive contacts with viewers and where she is also a member of the Board of Directors. As well, she is a single mother of a seven year old son. Her education and career have already taken her to the United States and Azerbaijan, but in the Turkish capital she feels most in her element. “Turkey is developing fast in recent years and I want to contribute and profit from that. Of course going to Europe crossed my mind, but what am I going to do in Germany, Holland or Spain? In Europe everything is so… arranged. That doesn’t suit me, I need the young and dynamic spirit that Turkey gives me.”

Short skirt and high boots

Esra doesn’t at all comply with the stereotype image that many Dutch people have of Turkish women – key words being ‘uneducated’, ‘headscarf’ and ‘dependant on her husband’. A week later at work Esra walks around in a short skirt and high boots, her hair curls exuberantly and with an air worthy of a Board of Directors member, she talks to employees and TV showguests as she walks in and out of countless TV studios. She makes a nice contrast with a conservative Koranexpert who is a guest on a religious program and who, in between recordings, in a friendly way tells her about his contribution to the program. “This is the Turkey that many Europeans don’t know”, says Esra afterwards. “A modern country in which people with different backgrounds and opinions respect each other and work together. I think many Europeans still think Turkey is a sort of third world country, in which women have no rights and always follow their husbands.”

A more prosperous life

Maybe that image is why many Europeans feel reluctant to grant Turkish access to the EU. One of the fears is that Europe will be flooded with Turks looking for work. That fear might be partly justified: a lot of Turks still dream of a more prosperous life in Europe. But on the other hand, it’s also an arrogant assumption: as if all Turks can’t wait to get to Europe. And as if there were nothing good in Turkey. You could say: on the contrary.
The Turkish economy is growing fast: the last couple of years by around 7.5% a year, whereas the European economy only grew by about 2%. The population of Turkey is young, while the European population is aging. Sociology professor Yildiz Ecevit, teaching at METU University in Ankara, who has been engaged in ‘women and work’ studies for 25 years now: “At the moment, the Turkish economy is growing faster than the number of jobs, but I think that will change in coming years. There are good prospects here in Turkey.”

(Ayşenur Erisik)

Ayşenur Erisik (37) works in Etiler, an Istanbul business district, as an ITspecialist for computer giant Intel. Close to her work, the hypermodern shopping mall AK Merkez towers into the sky. Ayşenur likes to shop there or get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. With her husband and daughter she lives in a suburb of the city. Now and then she takes a plane to the US or a European country, on a business trip. She always feels the surprise caused by the fact that the Turkish delegation consists partly of young, modern women. “Maybe that’s not so strange”, she says, “because Europeans mainly know Turkish immigrants that come from Anatolian villages, but still it bothers me. There areso many prejudices against Turks; even if you have a good education and career, like me, you feel it.”

Earning and spending money

Ayşenur’s husband worked in the US for a while and at the time she considered finding a job there too. “But I’m glad I didn’t. Some friends from university moved to the US or Europe. They all went temporarily but now for them it’s hard to return to Turkey because it’s not easy for them to find a job in Turkey, after having been away for years. My husband and I moved from Ankara to Istanbul because there is more work here. I tell you, that move was big enough in itself. Ankara is much smaller, the population is not as diverse as here in Istanbul. Living in Istanbul is more expensive, and more tiring because the distances are big and traffic is horrible.” Still, she says, she feels good: she likes earning and spending money in Turkey and making her contribution to the development of her country.

Ayşenur brings up an important issue: future chances for higher educated Turks, and especially women, are in Istanbul. In the capital Ankara thereare opportunities for those who have the ambition to make a career as a civil servant, while in other cities there is a lack of jobs. Professor Ecevit: “Employment is mainly growing in the services sector, and that sector is concentrated in Istanbul. This sector – banks, media, hotel and catering industry, computer technology – offers higher educated women a chance, at least, if they are prepared to work fulltime.”
Statistics prove her point: the Women and Work Platform calculated that in 2006 37% of working women were employed in ‘services’, against 17% in 1999. The proportion of women in agriculture is declining and also the total number of women working is decreasing. The latter is caused by urbanisation: lower educated women are counted as ‘labouring family members’ when they live in a village and work for example on the family farm, but after they move to the city, they are registered as housewives.

Private school

Ecevit is less hopeful about employment outside Istanbul. Higher educated women in average Anatolian cities simply can’t find a job in their profession. Moving to Istanbul is an option, but there life is about twice as expensive as elsewhere in the country and even though opportunities are better, higher level jobs don’t grow on trees either. Ayşenur Erisik says it took her a year to get settled in Istanbul: “It’s a challenge to build your life here, but it’s also a struggle. What makes it more difficult, is that both my husband and I don’t have our families around anymore. They could have supported me. Also in a practical way: childcare is very expensive here. Now our daughter goes to school; a private school, which is also a lot more expensive than elsewhere in Turkey. Luckily, school lasts till the end of the afternoon and our daughter is brought home by a school bus. My and my husband’s lives are tightly scheduled because we hardly have anyone to fall back on.”

(Şebnem Nantu)

According to professor Ecevit the solution would be to expand employment. Politics and employers have to take care of that over the coming years, helped by the growing economy. Going to Europe to find work, she thinks is a bad idea. “An earlier generation already did that and I don’t think it made them much happier”, she says. “At the time, lower educated people left, but for higher educated Turks Europe doesn’t have too much to offer either, especially when it comes to employment. “Imagine an academically educated woman from Istanbul going to Paris, Copenhagen or Amsterdam. What is she going to find there that she cannot find in Istanbul? Turkey, and especially Istanbul, is so much more alive, more dynamic and younger. We have to invest in creating opportunities for people here, and outside Istanbul as well. Especially for women, who traditionally take care of the children and don’t get much help yet from employers and the government.”


Opportunities, that’s also what Şebnem Nantu (30) hopes for. At the moment, her life is not yet settled. She has a job as a saleswoman in an art gallery and at night she earns a bit extra by giving English lessons, but she has a university degree in communications and wants a better job. The point is, only half a year ago she returned from London, where she lived almost five years. Before that she lived in Ankara and she studied in Izmir, but Istanbul has more to offer, she says. “And it also has more to offer than any European country could”, she says with a biting voice.
She left for England as an au pair. With her ‘green passport’, a special Turkish passport that her father as a high civil servant could also get for his children, she can travel to Europe easier then other Turks and she was able to extend her visa a few times. “I didn’t intend to stay in England forever. It just seemed exciting to arrive somewhere as a stranger and try to build a life.” She wanted to leave Turkey to get away from the pressure from her family to lead a more regular life and to settle down properly. “I hoped Europe would give me freedom.”


That turned out to be disappointing: her Turkish university degree was worth nothing in London, nobody was looking for foreign employees and in the end she had to fall back on small unskilled jobs. After her time as an au pair, she worked in cafés, as a cleaning woman, and as carer for a sick old lady. “I didn’t manage to become part of British life. I felt I was pigeon-holed. Nationality, religion and social position, that’s what I was judged on. I’m not religious, but I come from a Muslim country and my social position was not so strong in  London. So I was not included.”
This notion really hit her when in the end her visa was no longer extended. “As a young woman with a university degree and good future prospects, I turned into a badly paid semi-legal without any rights.” Now she lives in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the city, the part of town where she was born. Şebnem: “All the way back to my roots and start over again from scratch, that seemed a good idea.” Going back to Europe? Şebnem doesn’t consider it for a second. Not to England, but also not to a country like Holland, a country whose language she doesn’t even speak.. “I heard you have to learn Dutch before you can get a residence permit. Legalised discrimination, that’s what I call it. Europe is so arrogant.”


Just as many Europeans are not keen on Turkey becoming an EU member, the EU is not popular in Turkey either. At the end of 2004, when Turkey officially became a candidate for EU membership, more than two thirds of Turkish people were in favour of EU membership, but now this figure has dropped to only a third. And that has a lot to do with this ‘arrogance’ of Europe. Many Turks believe that Europe doesn’t really want Turkey as a member and feel Europe is making new demands all the time. Besides that, Turks wonder about what they would gain from membership. Which connects with what Esra Özbey and Professor Ecevit said before: Europe is old, heavy and slow, and has lots or reasons to want Turkey in its Union that are not advantageous for Turks themselves. The young population would rejuvenate aged Europe; Turkey – with an economy growing faster than any European economy – is an enormous consumer market for European products and services, and the country can function as a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world. But when it comes to things that Turks would benefit from, like freedom of movement, immediately Europe talks of restrictions. In other words: Europe wants to have the fun but not the trouble. 

(Esra Özbey, right)

The noise of the cappuccino machine makes it hard to talk for a while in the art gallery where Şebnem works. With her striking, exuberant way of dressing she makes a nice picture with the mainly brightly coloured paintings around her. The gallery specializes in art by Istanbul artists; the coffee tables are also used to display jewellery from Istanbul designers. It’s Tuesday morning and quiet in the shop. “I work here six days a week. Every morning I leave my house at seven to catch the ferry. I like to sit on the outside deck with a cup of tea,look at the people a bit, stare at the city and over Bosporus and slowly wake up. Turkey is rougher than England and probably rougher than most European countries, but I like that. What you see is what you get. In London on the outside everything seemed so nice, but life was just as hard.”

She wishes Turkey would be a bit stronger in its dealings with the EU. Her country, she feels, is like a dog sitting in front of a closed door waiting to get some food. “But it only gets a bite when it acts exactly as the boss orders.” Turkey should, she says, believe more in its own strength and develop itself because it wants to do that in stead of because Europe orders it. “And by the way, we don’t have to be focused only on Europe. Why not work more with countries in this region, or with other growing economies like China and India? This economic growth we have in Turkey, we managed to do that as non-EU members, didn’t we? We should stop behaving as a lap dog.”

A big love

Esra Özbey agrees, even though she is not an outspoken opponent of EU membership. “In the end we will become a member. But now, Turkey spends too much energy on chasing after conditions that need to be met, and on finding balance between that and the public opinion.”
She sees parallels with her own life, she says: “I always chased my work ambitions. The last two years, I have focused more on my own development as a person, after I lost a big love, which really hurt me. I have developed psychologically and spiritually and that made me stronger. I’m in balance with myself. And I know now that I was born in Turkey for a reason. My soul, as I like to call it, has to develop itself. What better place to do that than in my own country?”

Published in Marie Claire (the Netherlands)

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