It shows a line-up of white-veiled women, 10 abreast, riding their donkeys along a dirt track on their way to work in their gardens amid the fairy chimneys. No more than 40 years old, it portrays a lifestyle now almost as lost as that of the Lycians, with Göreme’s last donkey now on its very last legs.
Strangely enough, a reverse migration still takes place every morning, only now the ranks of women are riding in on the buses from Nevşehir and Avanos to work as bedmakers in the hotels and pensions. There’s a veritable army of them apparently although I have to take this on trust being more of an owl than a lark when it comes to waking hours. And of course there’s no one on hand from National Geographic to snap this far less colorful but nonetheless telling movement of people.
The trouble is that living in Göreme has given me a somewhat distorted and rose-tinted view of female employment prospects in Turkey. I see my neighbors taking up paid work outside the home en masse and am tempted to think this is typical. But official statistics tell a very different story according to which women still make up less than 20 percent of the Turkish workforce. What’s more, their participation is thought to be falling rather than rising, the exact opposite of the Göreme experience.
That reality is one that has been staring me in the face this winter when for all sorts of reasons I’ve had to spend more time than usual in a variety of government offices in Nevşehir. And what did I find there? Well, an overwhelming preponderance of men doing all the pen-pushing types of job that in the UK these days tend to be monopolized by women. It’s not an absolute, of course. There are certainly some women working in the government offices, but they’re a small minority and mainly seem to be carrying out secretarial functions.
Nevşehir is notoriously conservative, so even though there are plenty of women working in the shops and a few even in the banks, perhaps I shouldn’t really have expected anything else. But here’s the thing. The law bans women who wear headscarves from working in the civil service. Nevşehir being so conservative, it follows as night does day then that the pool of women who are actually eligible to work in government offices is going to be pretty small. Younger women may have shed the shawls and lower-face veils of their mothers’ generation but that hardly means that they’ve opted to go bare-headed.
Were the ban on headscarves ever to be lifted it would be interesting to see what would happen. Maybe the ratio of men to women would stay much the same as it is now. Somehow, though, I doubt that. Instead I suspect that many bright young Nevşehirli women would be queuing up to take their place behind the desks. Would that make a difference? Well, of course it would, and many other women would probably feel a lot more comfortable visiting government offices if they ceased to be rather daunting and primarily male terrain.
Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.