Talking in circles

I wrote an article (read it here) for a Dutch monthly feminist magazine about discrimination in the labour market in Turkey against women who wear a headscarf. Since the elections are coming up, I interviewed the only candidate with a headscarf who stands a chance of being elected, Aynur Bayram from Ankara. She was an example of the trouble that ‘closed’ women can have when they are educated and want to have a career. It seemed logical to ask a women’s NGO focussing on women in the workplace their opinion on the subject. What would they be doing to improve the situation? Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.

And it all started so well. I called Kagider, a women’s entrepreneur organisation. I was quickly called back by their Secretary-General Yesim Müftüler Seviğ. I had my questions prepared. I thought that they would have to deal with the issue for two groups. One, women wearing a headscarf who encounter difficulties in their entrepreneurship because of wearing the scarf. Two, women who might want to employ a woman with a headscarf in their business but who don’t because they are afraid of the possible reactions of their customers. I was amazed to hear that Kagider is doing nothing for either group. It’s just not an issue.


So there I sat with my list of questions. I quickly came up with new ones of course. Don’t they see discrimination of headscarfed women in the labour market as a problem? Don’t they get questions from women in both groups about this matter? Shouldn’t they develop some kind of policy about this?

In short, the answer was ‘No’. In a way, I could understand, because Yesim explained to me how Kagider works: they develop programmes and policies based on the questions they get from their members. And the fact is, they don’t get questions about this topic. She couldn’t really explain why. Is it because the matter doesn’t play a role in the lives of their members? Or don’t they have any members with a headscarf who need support?

Soon we were talking in circles. I said it’s obvious they don’t get any questions if they don’t make any policy or even statement on the matter. Then she said they can only do so if the members say they should. To which I replied that there is not much point for a woman with a headscarf to become a member of an organisation that doesn’t address the problems she might have. To which she replied… etcetera.


It’s great that Kagider listens to their members. On the other hand, isn’t it also an NGO’s task to perceive new developments in society that are relevant to their (potential) members and give their perspective on it? I’m not just talking about women with a headscarf; it could be any topic relevant to women’s entrepreneurship that they haven’t yet picked up. Giving priority only to people you already represent, in the end makes you an inward-looking organisation.

Not that I think Kagider is doomed to be one, though. They just launched a project to ‘go national’ and aim at getting more established in all Turkish regions. Probably they’ll be confronted with other issues than those that are current in Turkey’s biggest cities. I can’t wait to see what new topics they will add to their list of priorities. And which new members that will attract!

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