Contextualizing Immigration: A Brief Overview of Turkish Women Immigrants in Germany

Turkish Women Immigration Germany Feminist Foreign Policy

This article explores the multilayered experiences of Turkish women immigrants in Germany in the late 1900’s, many of whom experienced discrimination within the labour force due to their status as female Turkish immigrants. Recently, Germany has been applauded for their generous intake of refugees and their seemingly progressive immigration policies.  However, historical contradictions are highlighted and shown to contribute to a pattern of systemic exclusion.

Turkish Women in the Labour Force

A recession hit Germany in the 1970's, spurring among some hope that the influx of immigrants pouring into the country would slow down, but the population continued to increase. Turkish immigrants soon became one of the largest ethnic groups residing in the country, and their sizeable presence had an undeniably positive impact on the German local economy.

When Turkish women arrived in Germany, they were commonly stereotyped as housewives with limited skill sets. But by 1983, Turkish women were active in various sectors of the Turkish labour market, such as the manufacturing, food, metal, and textile industries. Despite this, inaccurate stereotypes were perpetuated through public discourse, even while Turkish women were employed.

Statistical evidence provided by Alice Munscher from a survey of Turkish women in West Germany in 1984, shows that a third of Turkish immigrants were employed in some capacity, whether full-time or part-time. Many also held unregistered jobs, meaning the actual number of female workers was probably much larger than this statistic reflects.

The immigration halt in West Germany in 1974 had a direct influence on the shrunken labour market that Turkish women experienced in 1983. When the labour market began to expand again, factors such as inadequate access to child care services limited their ability to work. Immigrant women’s working potential would often be manipulated through government policies. Higher child care fees and admission quotas, for example, were often disproportionately placed on immigrant women due to their status, and sometimes, children would have to be placed in adequate childcare facilities before women were even allowed to receive their work permits.

In certain cases, Turkish women immigrated to Germany before their husbands in order to secure housing and prepare for their family’s arrival. Munscher cites the story of a woman named Ayse, who lived in Germany with her fourteen-year-old daughter. Ayse held three different jobs in order to save what little money she could to send to her husband and son back in Turkey.  This work did not include the household labour Ayse would then complete, which included fixing dinner for her daughter, tidying up the house, doing laundry, and getting everything situated for the next day.  Ayse’s husband was unable to secure a work permit to enter Germany because the flat Ayse occupied was considered too small for her family. To live in Germany, each family had to meet a set precedent of living standards in order to be accepted to live in the country. If a family did not fit the norm placed by the immigration office, the office would then reject the reunification of the family. Sometimes, it would take years to find a suitable flat for a family to officially reside together in Germany.

Turkish women were often the prime carers of their households but sometimes struggled to work and find proper childcare for their children. Although many Turkish women held jobs deemed as “highly-skilled”, they were often paid low wages. Legal and economic insecurity left many of these immigrant women with no choice but to accept hard work with discriminatory wages.

The Contemporary Picture

With the current worldwide refugee crisis, Germany has welcomed refugees at a much higher rate than many other European countries. Unfortunately, a seemingly generous refugee intake has not necessarily resulted in inclusivity, and high levels of xenophobia and pertinent violence towards people deemed as “outsiders” has been widely reported.

In 2005, the German government enacted the Immigration Act, which shapes citizenship and integration policies for immigrants and refugees. However, despite new practices to integrate immigrants into German citizenry, Turkish women can continue to fall through the cracks. Many continue to face excruciating circumstances once arriving in Germany. Joblessness, poverty, and domestic abuse are among the issues which some immigrants experience while residing in Germany. According to an article from the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 55% of Turkish women interviewed reported that they faced some type of discrimination due to their ethnicity, race, or gender while living in Germany. Such discrimination has also been shown to have serious psychological impacts.

Ozlem Gezer, a woman with Turkish immigrant parents, described the racism she experienced while living in Germany. Though Gezer had spent her entire life in Hamburg, she grew accustomed to being asked the same archaic questions about her background. Questions such as, “Are you allowed to eat pork?” or “Are you allowed to have a German boyfriend?” only scratched the surface of the interrogation which became commonplace while she resided in Hamburg. Such violating lines of questioning, which were often masked as an "interest in foreign cultures", meant that Gezer and other immigrant children felt they “had no private life.” Gezer deemed herself a citizen but said she felt she would never fully be accepted as one. Unfortunately, Gezer’s story is not uncommon.

German immigration laws and policies do not fully constitute the rights of Turkish women. The rhetoric surrounding immigration can emphasise the need to integrate immigrants effectively within German society, however, it seems that the codification of this desired integration has yet to materialise. Furthermore, the burden of expectation to integrate is often unfairly placed on the shoulders of immigrants themselves, with minimal effort from existing residents to participate in this process as well.

The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has been a strong leader in the European Union regarding immigration. But since the Immigration Act, no alternations have been made to ensure the full protection of all immigrants. And while Germany holds "a considerable amount of influence over policy-making" in the EU, holding the German government accountable for its immigration policies remains critical to addressing the current refugee crisis. 

Blessing Ikpa is an editor at FFP and a postgraduate student in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs at American University. Follow her on Twitter: @_cacaobeans



Marissa Conway