Feminist research at the intersection of immigration and gender / Interview with Emel Coşkun and Selmin Kaşka
Cemile Gizem Dinçer / 2022, April 9
We did an interview with Emel Coşkun and Selmin Kaşka on their compiled book ‟Göçmen ve Mülteci Kadınlar: Türkiye’de Araştırma, Politika ve Uygulamada Toplumsal Cinsiyet Farkındalığı” [Women, Migration and Asylum in Turkey: Developing Gender-Sensitivity in Migration Research, Policy and Practice (Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship)], published by Bağlam in January 2022, which deals with the differing experiences of migrant and refugee women in Turkey from a feminist perspective. The book, which was edited by Selmin Kaşka, Emel Coşkun and Lucy Williams, aims to discuss and make visible the migration experiences of migrant women shaped by gender, including the testimonies of migrant women and activists who convey first-hand accounts on what it means to be a migrant in Turkey.
The book examines how gender and being a migrant affect the life experiences of migrant women in Turkey by focusing on women who are part of different migration flows at different times. How did the idea of preparing such a book come about?
We took the first step for this book at a migration conference in Athens in 2017. The three editors and some of the authors of the book organized a panel titled “Migration and Gender in Turkey” at this conference. While evaluating the panel among ourselves after the panel, we determined that although there are many studies that adopt a gender perspective and focus on migrant women in Turkey, these studies are disorganized. Undoubtedly, the literature on this subject was expanding, theses were being written, articles were being published, researches were being made, and it still is, and it is good. However, we realized that there isn’t a compiled book that deals with various aspects of the subject and various groups.
The second step in the elaboration of this idea was the workshop we held in Istanbul, with the support of Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung Turkey (FES), in May 2018, about a year after the conference. Most of the authors of the book came together in this workshop. We exchanged ideas about the book’s themes, scope, and terminological preferences and shared the work.
The third step was the English version of the book. As the editors and authors of the book, we thought that the experiences of migrant women in Turkey were not adequately conveyed to international readers. For this reason, we planned to prepare the English version first and the book was published in English in the “Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship” series of Palgrave Macmillan Publishing House in early 2020. 
Finally, the fourth and final step was the Turkish version of the book published by Bağlam Publishing. We attached great importance to publish in Turkish the experiences, facts and analyzes which are conveyed in the English version of the book, because we hoped that the experiences there would be heard by the local public and readers, and would guide young researchers. This book is largely a Turkish translation of the English version. In addition, two articles were written for the Turkish edition by the authors who also have chapters in the English version. Other articles were updated as the authors deem necessary.
A unique feature of the book is that instead of quoting migrant women and activists, you have included their testimonies with their own words in the book. This is an important methodological intervention that recognizes the subject position of women and sees them as volitional actors, beyond defining the respondent of the research and the owners of the experience as “researched”. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did you decide to include testimonies in the book?
These testimonies were a subject that we focused on from the very beginning of the idea of the book. Thus, we invited some migrant women to our workshop, listened to their experiences together and chatted with them. In fact, we met a lot more women. For example, a Syrian refugee woman, who came to Turkey at a young age, learned Turkish, divorced her husband while in Turkey, struggles to build a life for herself in Istanbul with her children, and whose determination and strong character we were impressed by, participated in our workshop in Istanbul. The testimonies of her and other migrant women inspired us as well. The women whose testimonies are included in the book and who were in Turkey as undocumented migrants, refugees, activists or translators were women who actively participated in our research or whose experiences we witnessed in the process. When we listened to migrant women in the workshop, we understood better how important it is for migrant women to take an unmediated part in our work.
As in all studies based on field research, our book also includes excerpts from interviews with migrant women in the chapters written by researchers. However, we wanted to go beyond that and include the voices of migrant women a little more broadly as those who directly presented their own testimonies, not as those who provided our research findings or “researched”. The reason for this was that we saw migrant women as active subjects and we prepared the book with this approach. We believe that it is very important to hear more closely and broadly about women’s migration experiences. As we mentioned in the book, by criticizing the discourses that portray women as dependent or victims, we tried to approach gender in migration studies as a much more complex determinant rather than an “add and mix” approach that only focuses on women. That’s why women from Sub-Saharan Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Egypt or Turkey expressing their perspectives in their own words is also a result of the feminist approach. Now we see that there are different studies on migration, both critically and methodically, which is pleasing. There are testimonies of six women in the book, I wish we could have included more testimonies.
While women have made up half of the migrants since the 1960s, we see that the number of studies focusing on migrant women was quite low until recently. Although research in this area has increased in recent years, it is actually possible to talk also about a change in the way migrant women are handled. Rather than a quantitative difference, as you mentioned, the fact that women are treated as independent actors and the feminization of migration is more visible. What would you like to say about it?
As we have tried to emphasize in various chapters in this book, the relationship between migration and gender, and the issue of migrant women is a relatively new field of study in international literature. It is certain that there was gender blindness in this regard until recently. Undoubtedly, feminist social sciences and activism paved the way for overcoming this blindness. Thanks to this, the number of studies that make women visible in migration processes has fortunately started to increase. In fact, we are talking about a process that evolves from an approach that sees migrants as genderless and even male, towards the feminization of migration.
There is no doubt that the projections of the feminization of migration are very diverse. With the testimonies in the book, we actually wanted to include these projections. Through these testimonies, we hear firsthand the factual counterpart of a determination that we have accepted as a starting point in theory. Not only in the testimonies in this book, but also in all of our research, we see migrant women as those who make active decisions beyond the roles assigned to them, evaluate and criticize the current situation, and take control of their own lives within the current conditions. In fact, we know many migrant women who developed their own survival strategies in the conditions of Turkey and started to take an active role in this regard. For example, a Ugandan migrant woman raised her child who was born in Turkey until she/he was a few years old, then sent her/him to her own country when she/he reached school age, and then she went there too, and came back after a year of unemployment there. She now works in a cargo company, in solidarity with the women around her. These processes also demonstrate the active mobility of women in the migration process. Another example was that when an Uzbek woman who was exposed to violence by her husband was out of her house, another Ugandan immigrant woman offered to go and pick her up where she was. Our Ugandan friend, despite not speaking the same language and not coming from the same culture, showed solidarity by empathizing with her without hesitation because of her gender-based experience. Each woman’s story actually reflects complex power relations, in which gender influences far beyond numbers and statistics. We also wanted to show women’s subjective case more closely and to emphasize the importance of gender by discussing international migration through women’s own experiences.
Again, we see that there is less research on certain migrant groups and women in these groups – the undocumented, asylum seekers, etc. Although we can say that there is a comprehensive corpus on Syrians, unfortunately, the number of studies focusing on women and LGBTI+s in this corpus is also limited. Why do you think this “delay” is due? Beyond adding women as a variable to research, why is there such a limited number of studies that consider gender as an analytical category?
There are various reasons for this, of course, but it is possible to say that the main and general reason is the character of the society-knowledge relationship. As we know very well, power inequalities in society are also reflected in the production of knowledge. Therefore, the production of knowledge on migration (more precisely, the production of mainstream knowledge) is mainly determined by the dominant discourse and policies. For example, the issue of migration was defined as one of the priority areas in the doctorate by the Council of Higher Education 4-5 years ago, but if we look at which migrants or which topics the theses written are focused on, we see that “acceptable migrants” and “acceptable topics” are more widely researched. In this regard, as in other countries, the migration policies of the state determine –to a large extent, if not completely– on which migrant groups’ knowledge will be produced. For example, we see that the issue of migration and integration came to the fore after it was accepted that the Syrian migration was not very temporary, maybe not explicitly but implicitly. However, there were migrants in Turkey before the Syrian migration, but issues such as “harmony” or “integration” were almost never discussed. In recent years, we see that priority areas such as Syrian refugees and social cohesion, border security, human smuggling and human trafficking have come to the fore in thesis. When we look at the studies on migrants, including theses, we see that the number of critical ones is relatively low, and that most of the studies are significantly influenced by the dominant political discourse in terms of terminology, research design, methodology and ethics.
We know that migrants are reached through NGOs in some of the researches on undocumented migrants. Sometimes NGOs publish reports in this field directly themselves. Some, if not all, of these studies may have serious methodological and ethical problems. The language and terminology used may not pay attention to the sensitivity of migrants and may lead to reductionist inferences. On the other hand, it can be said that the positivist approach widely adopted in Turkey is also effective in this area, undoubtedly, it is important to produce numeric data on migration, especially in a country where statistical data is lacking in many areas. However, in addition to quantitative studies in this field, we think that qualitative research on the issue that needs to produce such in-depth information should also come to the fore. This again shows how important feminist research is. In this sense, researchers need to be more independent and critical both in terms of the subject and method they work on. Of course, we see that there are also very devoted and ethically attentive researchers, which is promising.
Migration and refugee studies are a very difficult field for research. People are vulnerable, they have to deal with a lot of fundamental problems. Of course, a “foreigner” who cannot have healthy housing, live, work, and is constantly oppressed by the state or society avoids speaking. That’s why we see that research on migrant women is mostly done with more accessible groups such as migrant women working in domestic jobs.
Access is a separate issue for LGBTI+s, but it is possible to say that LGBTI+s is a group that expresses themselves much better. We have not been able to include this group directly in this book, but our general observations are that LGBTI+ migrants state that turning themselves into a research object and approaching them as an “interesting” group is an important problem. Because of this objectification, they usually do not want to be interviewed. As a group that is under great pressure in society, we think it is more important for them to have their say. It is important to support the researchers we call “inside” in this field, just as encouraging female researchers in women’s studies.
You mentioned that research in the field of migration is shaped and mostly limited by the decisions of the state and state institutions. In the midst of these constraints, what space does conducting feminist research in the field of migration open up for us?
There is very limited data on migration in Turkey, which is not regular and only covers certain groups, such as the number of refugees, the number of undocumented migrants. Data on groups that are important to states and on migrants, which have reflections in politics, are published to support the political discourse in a sense. In particular, there is no data on undocumented migrants. This is due both to the nature of migration and to their exclusion from politics. In this field, women do not have much place in official data anyway. Most data are still presented as gender neutral. Since the mid-1990s, those studying on migration have constantly expressed that there are serious statistical deficiencies in this field and the fact that these data are not compartmented on the basis of gender, on various platforms. Thanks to these criticisms, data on migrant women, albeit limited, began to be published. But there are still serious problems with the data on registered migrants, as well as on undocumented migrants, who do not already have data.
For example, we have been studying marriages recently. Here, too, marriage data usually consists of residence permits and is presented as gender neutral. There is no gender-sensitive data, whereas we do know that women’s experience reflects highly complex power relations and is influenced by structural conditions. The duration of marriage, domestic violence, divorces appear as serious problem areas. In terms of studies in the field of migration, it is a serious problem that there is no data, if there is, it is not regular and some of the existing data cannot be accessed. Very ironically, we can access some data about Turkey through the statistical agency of the EU. This reflects the policy of not seeing and neglecting this area. Therefore, the lack of easily accessible, gender sensitive, healthy and regular data makes it difficult for us to understand the situation of immigrants. This is a serious problem for both researchers and indeed policy makers.
On the other hand, we know that even if there is statistical data, it does not provide us the opportunities qualitative research provides. This shows the importance of doing research with a feminist approach. Looking through the perspective of women and handling gender analytically allows us to see and criticize the mechanisms behind women’s real experiences. For example, cross-border marriages are portrayed as a field exploited by migrant women. You may remember that the issue of “fake marriage” was also discussed in public in Turkey for a while, and the relevant legal regulation was amended. However, this picture does not show us that marriage with migrant women is an important demand of men, that some of the migrant women are put under strict control by their Turkish spouses, and that the legal legislation is actually the main basis of male violence. Therefore, conducting feminist research on cross-border marriages shows us that women often endure that male violence for many years, cannot complain, and sometimes even have to leave their children because of the fear of being deported, losing their legal status, or being subjected to violence. These singular experiences make the whole picture clear to us. In other words, we see that Turkey’s migration regime has made room for male violence and normalized it. A feminist approach is necessary to understand and decipher these relationships in marriage and other fields beyond just cultural differences or the concept of social cohesion, which is emptied today. This approach can enable us to understand the male-dominated mechanisms behind existing relationships and to draw attention to more structural problems.
The book consists of a wide range of studies focusing on the experiences of migrant women in Turkey in different fields. The basic assumption that these studies share is that women’s experience in Turkey is shaped by not only woman identity but also migrant woman identity. What does this tell us? Can you explain a little bit what kind of similarities is it possible to talk about?
Although we try to have a wide scope, we must say that we have been able to do this to a limited extent. We would like to cover the different experiences of groups of migrant women of different ethnicities, ages and backgrounds. For example, we could not include the experiences of migrants staying in Turkey by marriage, women from Central Asia, domestic workers or health workers, European and North African women. On the other hand, like all migrants, millions of Syrian refugee women residing in Turkey, for example, are not a homogeneous group, they have different ethnic, class, professional and cultural backgrounds. We tried to make an explanation about these deficiencies at the beginning of the book.
On the other hand, one of the aims of this book is to highlight the similarities of women’s experiences, in terms of gender, around migrant identity, regardless of their legal status, whether they are undocumented, refugee or registered. In other words, trying to show how gender determines living and working conditions in Turkey. For example, the reasons for migrating to Turkey, the way they entered the country, the stories of their arrival through institutionalized intermediaries such as tourism or employment agencies or their own networks, the conditions of their stay in Turkey, the jobs they can find, their experiences and sexual harassment they are exposed are the common experiences of most migrant women. A Syrian refugee woman, who is a member of one of the most visible groups in Turkey, and a migrant woman from Sub-Saharan Africa are both subjected to similar forms of exploitation and harassment at home, in public spaces, and in the workplace. While labor exploitation, sexual harassment, and the unequal social relations they establish are determined by gender inequality, restrictions on migrants pave the way for these forms of exploitation.
As you mentioned, there is no doubt that many differences such as the documents they have, their status, class and ethnicity differentiate the experiences of women. Nevertheless, we see from the studies in the book that some patterns emerge. Can you talk about these patterns? And has the COVID-19 process caused any change in these patterns? How did it affect migrant women?
There is no article on the COVID period in the book, because the COVID-19 pandemic started while the Turkish version of the book was being prepared. However, in the introduction of the book, we tried to point out this subject, albeit briefly.
As it will be remembered, in the first period of the pandemic, neither the state institutions nor the society had systematic information about what should be done all over the world and in Turkey. Then the vaccine came to the agenda, but information such as the number of vaccines required in Turkey and how many people were vaccinated were always announced on the basis of citizens. We have followed through our networks that regular migrants have access to vaccines, but we have seen that the situation of undocumented migrants is hardly ever covered even in the media.
We saw that the freedom of movement, which was already limited for undocumented migrants, was further restricted during the pandemic process. For example, even using IETT buses became a problem for most migrants living in Istanbul, because the HES code was required, and for this, of course, it was necessary to be registered. Likewise, not being able to access health services made this process even more difficult. We have heard that migrants who were infected with the COVID-19 virus were sent home when they went to hospitals at all costs. For migrants who work in precarious and unhealthy conditions and stay in crowded and unhygienic homes, the pandemic process has resulted in further isolation, disease and deepening of poverty. In hospitals, most of those accompanying the elderly with COVID-19 were not their relatives, but migrant women who risked their lives and agreed to work as companions.
Apart from access to vaccines and other health services, the pandemic has exacerbated the disadvantages already faced by migrant women and created new disadvantages. Due to the curfews, women working in live-in jobs such as caregivers and domestic workers did their job under intense work pressure when all household members had to stay at home all day, and they had to take care of more people for longer periods of time. The long-standing fear of deportation and unsupported living conditions pushed them into even more precarious working conditions during the pandemic. For women working in isolated environments such as domestic workers, this process meant much more dependency on the employer. They could not even use their one-day leave due to health precautions. We know that there are migrant women who work live-in and did not go out during one year.
The ILO also drew attention to the fact that this is a global problem. In its annotation announced in April 2020, it highlighted the deteriorating working conditions of migrant workers during the pandemic and expressed its concern about the increase in violence against migrant women, especially those working in care. This annotation states that there are 164 million migrant workers globally, pointing out that almost half of migrant workers are women (ILO, 2020).
Job loss has seriously increased during the COVID period. While most migrant women experienced deep unemployment due to the closure of their workplaces in this process, they had to accept temporary jobs under much worse conditions, which they could barely find. For example, after the textile mills they worked in Istanbul were closed, most immigrants said that they had to look for a job in other districts, and that the jobs they could find were mask making or cleaning work for a daily wage of 40-50 TL. In this process, we know that those who can find a job or whose job continues, have the problem of not getting their wages.
Emel, we also know that you have research on undocumented women specifically. The book also includes your studies on both human trafficking and the asylum regime. What strategies do women develop to obtain more secured status in migration processes?
One of the reasons we conducted research with two different groups was to show how similar experiences shape women’s lives despite their different legal status. Undocumentedness and the restrictions of the migration regime bring along many problems and pave the way for trafficking in women for both labor and sexual exploitation. In other words, we may encounter migrant women who are forced into prostitution, are undocumented, and then apply for asylum; there are also women who are refugees from the beginning but are forced into prostitution by their employer, boyfriend or in a particular community. Here, rather than legal status, we see how transitional these areas are and how effective Turkey’s gender and immigration regimes are in this transitivity. Before we started these studies, we were aware of how similar these areas were with our own testimonies and experiences, these researches resulted from our testimonies to problems that we could not ignore. In other words, the need to systematically research, observe and listen to these issues arose.
Women are trying to survive within the framework of their current conditions in situations such as labor extortion and sexual harassment. Most of the time, staying silent is also a coping method, but they also get support from solidarity networks, sometimes they consult NGOs, their neighbors or their employers. They are trying to get away from the environment that harms them, it is possible to work with a female employer to avoid male employer’s harassment, to receive support from local citizens and associations to prevent wage extortion at the workplace. This situation sometimes goes as far as official institutions, they can apply for complaining about the workplace. For example, years ago, an Ugandan migrant woman took the machine she was working in the workplace to home when she was not paid for months. Her employer called her and threatened to give her to the police, but the woman did not give up and finally got her money. So, they use whatever resistance and bargaining capacity they have.
You mention that women from ex-Soviet countries developed solidarity practices for the solution of the problems they faced during their marriages with Turkish people and the difficulties they faced, and that they established various associations for this purpose. Can you talk a little bit about the solutions to the problems faced by other migrant women and what kind of self-organization practices are there to create spaces of solidarity?
Emel: This field covers very different social relations: Work, residence permits, men’s demand of migrant women’s body, male violence. Although these marriages are one of the tools adopted by migrant women for a more secure stay in Turkey and are tightly controlled due to the suspicion of “fake marriage”, this control can actually play an adverse role and put women under more pressure. Both by the state and by men, sometimes even by female members of the family — like a mother-in-law. These controls and social prejudices can make women more vulnerable to violence. Especially in tourism cities such as İstanbul or Antalya, we see that women have established their own associations and solidarity networks to combat these pressures and problems. Women who are experienced in fields such as paperwork and legislation share their experiences with others, which is a pleasing situation; but it is not very effective in terms of overcoming the existing difficulties structurally.
The Istanbul Convention is not only a convention that affects women and LGBTI+s from Turkey, but also an international convention that specifically addresses gender-based violence migrant women face and protection against this violence. How did Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention affect especially asylum seeker/refugee women?
Turkey’s announcement that it will withdraw from the Istanbul Convention affected not only women who are citizens of the Republic of Turkey, but also migrant women. Because the Convention pointed to non-discrimination based on gender regardless of being a migrant or a refugee, that is, regardless of legal status (Article 4/3), and stated that gender-based violence should be accepted as a legitimate justification for seeking asylum. Therefore, the Convention entrusted states to take the necessary legislative or other measures (Article 60/3) for the establishment of gender-sensitive asylum mechanisms. With Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention, an international legal basis directly pointing to gender-based violence against migrant women and protection has disappeared.
How do you evaluate the relationship of the Turkish feminist/women’s movement with migrant women? What needs to be done to build a common field of struggle?
Emel: The women’s movement in Turkey shows a very disorganized structure and we see that the primary problem of independent women’s organizations established in the provinces is still shaped based on male violence and fundamental rights. Migrant women are not at the top of this agenda. For example, a serious migrant population lives in Istanbul and Antalya, these women have been in Turkey for many years and speak Turkish. They are systematically subjected to male violence, but these groups of indigenous and migrant women have little contact with each other. It is possible to say that communication and solidarity are most visible among domestic workers, where there is a groping solidarity. There is potential to be in solidarity with migrant women and to communize and politicize the violence suffered by women, but indigenous women do not insist on realizing this. In cities such as Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır where refugee women are concentrated, we can see this solidarity more among women and in women’s organizations meeting around a common language.
The solidarity and support needs of migrant women in this field are mostly met by non-governmental organizations. Recently, on the occasion of March 8, I attended a workshop where migrant women also took part, a Syrian refugee woman who participated in the workshop with a video, mentioned that a large NGO working in the field of refugees in Turkey organizes meetings under the name of “tea time”, and in this way, she comes together with women who have had similar experiences. The women who met on the occasion of tea time talked about how this practice strengthened them. These experiences, such as a consciousness raising group, show how much migrant women need solidarity and listening to each other.
Although they meet a certain level of support needs of migrant women, non-governmental organizations as professional service providers do not have a great potential to raise women’s solidarity. Because in the relations established here, there can be a serious hierarchy as service recipients and providers. Of course, this hierarchy may also exist in the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, but the organizations established by women’s own efforts provide more opportunities for this solidarity. We had a small solidarity group that I was also in. Even though our experience here is limited, I believe that these relations have transformed both sides. The solidarity raised for the Jesca murder  indicates this. The women who attended that hearing actually realized how serious the situation was, and migrant women also value the importance of this unconditional relationship, they do not feel alone. This is really important. We, too, need to transform and change ourselves, break our prejudices and meet on a common ground. It is important that we create grounds of solidarity with migrant women, not only to combat violence, but also to share a common life and create a common ground of struggle.
Lucy Williams, Emel Coşkun ve Selmin Kaşka (2020). Women, Migration and Asylum in Turkey: Developing Gender-Sensitivity in Migration Research, Policy and Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan