Post-migration Wellbeing: The Case of Turkish-speaking Women in London, Dr Eleni Hatzidimitriadou

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Dr Eleni Hatzidimitriadou, of Kingston University and St George's, explores community activism and empowerment among Turkish-speaking women in London.

Dr Eleni Hatzidimitriadou, of Kingston University and St George's, explores community activism and empowerment among Turkish-speaking women in London.

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  • Labour emigration from Turkey to industrially developed countries of North and Western Europe has been taking place since the early 1960s. These flows were mostly regulated by the Turkish and host country governments through bilateral agreements – with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1961; Austria, Netherlands and Belgium in 1964; France in 1967; and Australia in 1968. While, in the early years, the majority of Turkish migrants were men, more recently Turkish women also participate in the migration process as initiators, namely the first in their family to migrate, or as followers who join their husbands already abroad or migrate with them. Despite that women usually migrate as ‘dependants’ and are confined to specific sectors and income level in the host country’s labour market, their existence in the migration space is becoming more visible due to their rising numbers in international migration groups and their major role in labour migration (Kadioglu, 1997; Castles and Miller, 1998).   Presently, in the European Union as a whole, women from Turkey comprise one of the largest groups of female non-nationals and they mainly reside in three countries: France, Germany and UK (Balding et al, 1997). In each of these national contexts, there are important and interesting distinguishing features. For example, Turkish migrant communities have been established the longest in Germany, from the 1960s, with already a third-generation population. In France and Britain they arrived later, mainly in the 1970s.   The Turkish communities and their descendents is a fairly new ethnic minority group in the UK. Turkish arrival to the UK started in the 1970s as workers and was followed by refugees who were mostly Kurdish in origin in the 1990s. The estimated number of Turkish migrants based on the different sources ranges from 115,000 to 300,000 in London (Çiçekli, 1998; Yalcin, 2003). The Turkish community in the UK includes Cypriot Turks, Turkish people and Kurdish origin people from Turkey, and their socialisation takes place in a very restricted local community in particular boroughs of the Greater London area, characterised by multicultural environments and a history of social exclusion (Enneli, Modood, & Bradley, 2005). Within this community, there are also ‘new’ religious groups (Sunni and Alevi) who gained visibility and voice abroad and in the home country, questioning the ‘official’ Kemalist culture of secularity.   Turkish migrant women living in Northern European countries are experiencing a number of social transformations and have a role to play in transmitting these values through transnational networks and return migration. It is important to examine more closely the experiences of these migrant women in order to evaluate how globalisation and cosmopolitanism is affecting their conceptualisations of citizenship rights.
  • Until the 1970s, gender was regarded as irrelevant to explaining population movements and, where considered in migration studies, it was an ‘add-on’ category, mainly looking at differences of the two sexes, and, more particular, the ‘plight’ of women as the dependant and more vulnerable population. The widely shared assumption was that women would migrate to accompany or to reunite with their breadwinner migrant husbands (Mahler & Pessar, 2006). Patriarchy is a concept fundamental to this analysis. By patriarchy we mean hierarchies of power, domination and control that men exercise over women. Patriarchy gives men preferential access to resources available in society therefore it is bound to impact on women’s ability to migrate as well as their decisions of the time and final destination of migration. Power relationships in the household between men and women are also important when considering the impact of gender on migration. Thus, it is important to examine how women’s relationships to family members, including spouses, change with migration; in effect, how patriarchy is shaped or reconstituted after migration (Boyd & Grieco, 2003). According to Boyd and Grieco (2003), we can observe the impact of gender in three distinct stages of the migration process: the pre-migration stage, the transition across state boundaries, and the post-migration stage. In the pre-migration stage, gender is important in relations and hierarchies, status and roles and the structural characteristics of the origin country. During the transition stage, the impact of gender is evidenced in national policies, immigration laws and regulations, organised intermediaries, and international conventions. Finally, in the post-migration stage, the gender effect has to be acknowledged in the integration process: the impact of early status, patterns of incorporation into the labour market, and the impact of migration on social status. For women in particular, there are two broad aspects of status that can change due to migration process: their position within their families and the impact of moving from one form of gender stratification system to another. Kofman argues, for the analysis of migration it is important to take into account the intersection of class, gender and race among the most significant social divisions. State regulations such as immigration rules force the migrant into a category, as for example the female migrant who enters through a family-related route and becomes the dependant of a male migrant. Also, segmentation of labour, according to which women occupy domestic labour, care and sex work while men occupy “the commanding heights of the knowledge economy and society”, overlooks the opening up of skilled employment for migrant women, often in feminised sectors like education and health.
  • It is through these discourses of ‘racial’, ethnic and national otherness rather than through sexual difference, that the antagonism between the ‘European’ and the ‘other’ woman is emphasised. In this binary the European woman serves as the standard against which to measure women from elsewhere. Muslim women are constructed as the prototype of migrant women perceived as miserable victims par excellence, handicapped by their culture of origin. In analysing the situation of Muslim migrant women, one generally encounters an image of Western women as triumphant in the realisation of equal rights and social equality, The common assumption underlying this comparison is that female autonomy is generally absent from Muslim culture and through this process of ‘standardisation’ European women become the yardstick of excellence, idealised as straightforward and independently successful beings whose gendered life has been freed of major contradictions and ambivalence (Lutz, 1997) Muslim women as well as numerous ‘other others’ are portrayed as a particular kind of deviation from ‘European’ femininity An implication of New Labour’s and Third Way’s politic is the emphasis that the experience of the users of the welfare services and their own definition of their needs is central to the organisation and delivery of welfare services.
  • As a distinct group, women moving from developing to developed countries have to deal with questions of autonomy and choice due to changing socio-economic circumstances and host country’s restrictive immigration policies. Complex gendered stratification both in sending and receiving countries impacts on their social status and roles, citizenship rights, their access to welfare state systems and subsequent sociospatial positions they occupy respectively in origin and host societal milieus (Castles and Davidson, 2000; Donato et al., 2006). For example, the phrase ‘feminisation of migration’ typically depicts the particular impact of women’s movement from developing countries rather than from developed ones, i.e. the migrant female worker carrying out the housekeeping or childcare responsibilities of a native middle-class female professional. Hence, the feminising of migration is a direct outcome of increasing female labour force participation in receiving countries. It is also linked to subsequent social transformations in the roles of women in the developing countries as they assume main breadwinner responsibilities, obtain economic power and engage in socio-political activities in their male dominated societies. Globalisation is another layer of analysis to be considered in the discussion of women and migration. It encourages mobility and is one of the major driving forces behind contemporary migratory movements. Growth of cross-border flows of investment, trade, culture, ideas and people as well as proliferation of transnational networks are among the most powerful characteristics of this phenomenon, which results in increased transnationalism of behaviours, social conventions and institutions. The globalisation of migration has been identified as another central tendency of major significance in future population movements by Castles and Miller (2003); it does not equate though with a straightforward transmission of values and beliefs that promote gender equality and women’s rights. In fact, it is increasingly noted that globalisation of migration may be achieving nothing more than sustaining female oppression by allowing the economic exploitation of poor women from developing countries in favour of global corporate interests and the liberation of women workers to enter the labour market in developed countries (Lutz, 2002). Yet, globalisation also enables female migrants from traditional environments to become familiar with new norms regarding women’s rights and opportunities in a cosmopolitan context. The effect of globalisation on issues of welfare is still to be examined more systematically in relation to different types of human mobility (Ndiaye, 2004). In this new reality, migrant women may become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse but at the same time may develop empowering new identities and lifestyles. s the feminisation of migration is gaining ground and becomes more evident worldwide, issues related to welfare policy and support systems for this migrant group come to the fore for policy makers, service providers, and recipients of welfare services. All too often, researchers and analysts in this field tend to represent migrant women as passive victims of male exploitation at different levels of economy, family life and social status. While this is true for a considerable number of women, it is also important to acknowledge the social transformations taking place in their lives as migrants. Inter-related societal factors such as class, gender and race determine issues of social inclusion and integration in the receiving countries. To examine the intersection of these structures on women migrants’ experiences and needs, we must begin by acknowledging the diversity of this experience and need. Most of research and analysis related to migrant women is focussed on economic and legal aspects of their experiences whereas little is said about their interaction with welfare systems in the receiving country.
  • Although this was a convenience sample rather than a representative one, efforts were made to ensure that participants reflected the variety of migration experience, areas of settlement, and socio-economic status of Turkish women living in London. Methodology and survey findings related to women’s physical and mental health difficulties as well as their experiences with service providers in the UK are discussed elsewhere (Çakir, Hatzidimitriadou & Aydin, forthcoming; Çakir & Hatzidimitriadou, 2006). It is worth noting that survey participants indicated that they faced more physical and mental health problems since arriving in the UK (physical health problems: before migration - 19.7%; after migration - 47.7%; mental health problems: before migration – 12.9%; after migration – 45.5%). For the purposes of this paper, I will focus my discussion on findings from the open-ended questions related to women’s views about life in the UK – difficulties of adjustment, needs, likes and dislikes of British life, experiences of discrimination and their expectations and plans for the future.
  • First, these women experience considerable cultural distance between Turkish and British societies in terms of values, principles, lifestyle, daily life and physical environments. The cultural distance, which is felt as a significant adjustment difficulty, is also a strong dislike for a lot of these women. They feel uncomfortable in an individualistic and materialistic society which suffers from lack of moral values, crowded places and crime.
  • Yet, a significant number of them identify freedom as the main attraction to their new country and their new way of life. This freedom is understood at many levels – personal, social, religious, financial - and denotes a break from social norms and expectations in the sending country and a liberated way of life in their new country. Their newly acquired access to social and human rights as well as gender equality is another dimension highlighted in their conceptions of British life. Again, this is a striking difference from their previous experiences in Turkey and it suggests a new form of citizenship, based on ascribed rights and systems of law and social norms.
  • Of relevance to this contrast between the sending and receiving country is also their preference of an orderly UK system and a clean, tidy environment with an attractive lifestyle of good economic conditions and high living standards. This comes to a contrast with the Turkish environments where they used to live. Also, it appears that the women enjoy the British multicultural environment as being more tolerant, diverse and cosmopolitan. These elements are far more important for these women than the most stereotypically expected pull factors of welfare benefits and care provision.
  • Qualitative approach – focus groups; short questionnaire on demographics and membership details; interview with group leader/facilitator; analysis of printed/electronic material


  • 1. Post-migration wellbeing, community activism and empowerment: the case of Turkish-speaking women in London Dr Eleni Hatzidimitriadou Reader in Social Work Migration and the Right to Health, 26-27 May 2010
  • 2. Turkish Migration
    • In European Union, Turkish migrant women comprise one of the largest groups of female non-nationals; mainly reside in Germany, France and UK
    • Turkish migrant communities is a fairly new ethnic minority group in the UK; it includes Cypriot Turks, Kurdish Turks and Turks from mainland Turkey as well as ‘new’ religious groups (Sunni and Alevi)
    • Estimated numbers – 115,000 to 300,000 mostly living in particular boroughs of the Greater London area
  • 3. Female migration
    • Feminist perspectives and patriarchal power relationships
    • Impact of gender in 3 stages of migration (Boyd & Grieco, 2003):
      • Pre-migration
      • Transition across state boundaries
      • Post-migration
    • Reductionist views of migrant women typically associated with socio-cultural, domestic and family spheres
    • Importance of the intersection of class, gender and race
  • 4. Migrant Women and Welfare
    • Migrant women are often perceived as ‘dependents’ of male migrants, as well as ‘voiceless’ and ‘powerless’ in welfare policy and service provision.
    • Little relevance of this conception of migrant women to New Labour welfare state where “ subject is the sceptical citizen-consumer who acts in the pursuit of enlightened self-interest, expecting value for money and quality services tailored to individual needs ” (F. Williams, 1999, p. 504).
    • The ‘ active welfare subject ’ is closely linked to the new social welfare movements and refers to the notion of a ‘ welfare citizen who is active in their participation in democratised welfare services ’ (ibid).
  • 5. Issues for research
    • Women’s post-migration experiences are related to gender roles, sexual relationships and victimisation such as domestic abuse and violence (McFarlane et al., 2002; Small et al, 2003)
    • Especially challenging for women who migrate from a patriarchal, collectivist to an individualistic society and may experience conflicts between home and host cultures
    • Women’s cultural capital could be an essential element of successful coping and resilience to post-migration adversities
    • Coping with post-migration difficulties and the nature of social transformations women might experience in the host country are yet to be fully explored
  • 6. The case of Turkish women in the UK
    • Survey of 264 Turkish-speaking migrant women in London (with Gulfem Çakir and Gul Aydin, 2006)
      • Self-reported physical and mental health status
      • Open-ended questions related to their experiences with health and social care services, views about life in the London as a migrant.
    • Main purpose was to assess acculturation and adaptation patterns of Turkish women who live in London.
    • Sample = different migrant groups, both economic and forced migrants, in London boroughs with high concentration of Turkish-speaking groups (Islington, Hackney, Harringey, Stoke Newington, Turnpike Lane, Newington Green)
      • Age: mean=34.3 yrs
      • Length of stay in the UK: range=1-38 yrs; mean=10 yrs
  • 7. Demographics
    • Most participants were married (66.3%), had children (77.3%) and had primary or secondary education (67.8%)
    • Only a quarter of participants were employed (26.9%)
    • The majority had either citizenship (56.5%) or Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR, 25.8%). Smaller numbers had refugee or asylum seeker status (3.4% and 3.8% respectively). Similarly, a small number had student visa or work permit only (5.4%).
    • Also, most migrated for family reunification or arranged marriage reasons, and came from small, peripheral cities instead of metropolitan areas of Turkey.
  • 8. Difficulties in adjusting to life in UK
    • 158 out of 264 participants (60%) had difficulties in adjusting to life in Britain
    • English language as a major barrier to adjusting in British life (n=98, 62.4%)
    • ‘ Cultural distance’ between home and host countries:
      • cultural differences between Turkish and British societies (n=42)
      • unfamiliar environment (n=14)
      • generally, difficulty to adjust (n=19)
      • change in the way of life (n=6)
    • Other difficulties: missing friends and family/homesickness (n=11), loneliness (n=7), no social life (n=7).
  • 9. Difficulties in adjusting to life in UK
    • Daily life difficulties were less mentioned by participants: work-related problems (n=6), housing problems (n=2), financial difficulties (n=4), problems with legal status (n=3), loss of economic and social status (n=2).
    • Few of them (n=4) mentioned racism or discrimination as a difficulty [this was an issue explored separately by another question of the survey]
    • 18 women stated that they have no difficulties whereas 7 of them believed that they were better in the UK, were adjusting well or had help from the UK Government and from their family
  • 10. Views about life in UK: Freedom
    • The majority identified citizenship and gender related issues – freedom, respect, human rights, equality – as positive elements of British life (125 out of 206 participants who answered this question)
    • A third prioritised freedom and rights as something they valued in Britain (n=63)
    • Freedom was referred in relation to:
      • social life – ‘nobody is interfering’
      • personal freedom and independence – ‘to express myself’, ‘making my own decisions’, ‘to continue education’
      • financial freedom
      • religion and physical appearance/clothing
      • gender equality
      • freedom from the social control of the origin country
      • freedom to spend more time with their children and raise them according to their own principles and not those of the Turkish society
  • 11. Views about the UK: Rights and British lifestyle
    • Related to this feeling of freedom were also:
      • social and human rights (n=19) – for women, children and elderly, respect (n=12), more opportunities in society (=15), security (n=5), value given to people (n=6), democratic society (n=5).
    • Another major area of women’s positive views of British life was the UK lifestyle and infrastructure. In particular, participants identified the UK system (n=21), physical environment n=21), infrastructure (n=20), economic conditions (n=19), and living standards (n=11):
      • “ order and system in this country”
      • “ clean and tidy environment”
      • “ you can find everything to make your life easier; well established system; there are things for every income level”
  • 12. Views about the UK: Multicultural environment and Benefits
    • Preference of the British multicultural environment (n=19); diversity, tolerance and cosmopolitanism were identified as important aspects of English life for these women:
      • “ England is a cosmopolitan country”
      • “ culture here is more open to diversity”
      • “ living in a multicultural environment; having enough support for all these minorities”
      • “ tolerance to different cultures and religions”
    • Importance of welfare benefits and education were also mentioned by the women (n=19 and n=12 respectively), as well as good economic conditions (n=19). When identified, these issues were mentioned as part of a society where the vulnerable are protected and supported and women can gain independence through education
  • 13. Community Activism of Turkish-speaking women
    • Follow-up small qualitative study with 2 women’s groups in North London
    • Research questions:
      • What is the function of migrant women’s community activism?
      • How is community activism related to personal/social change focus of group?
      • What are the experiences of women who are involved in these community organisations/groups?
    • Selection criterion of groups: Self-help group typology according to focus of change (Hatzidimitriadou 2002) - personal or social change
  • 14. Group A: Social Change
    • Set up in 1989 to work with and on behalf of Turkish and Kurdish people living and working in London. Women’s services form part of a larger organisation that functions as a day centre
    • Objective: “ to help them solve their problems and promote their cultural, economic, social and democratic rights; to strengthen solidarity among themselves as well as local people; and to help their integration into the society .”
    • Services: Information, Advocacy, Advice Services, Political Action
    • Funding: local authorities, charity grants, European Union
    • Membership: 50 members and a number of volunteers
  • 15. Group B: Personal Change
    • Set up in 1999 by a group of Turkish-Muslim intellectuals, academics and volunteers as a not-for-profit charitable organisation
    • Objective: “ to promote tolerance, understanding, mutual respect and acceptance of people as they are, between people from all walks of life. [Group B] actively encourages and nurtures dialogue between followers of different ideologies, different ethnic communities, adherents of different religions and members of society generally .”
    • Part of a network of interfaith dialogue organisations in the UK and elsewhere. Women represent half of the membership
    • Funding: members’ contributions
    • Membership: 20-30 members plus 10 Friends of the Society and a large base of volunteers
  • 16. Profile of Participants
    • 30-44 years old, married, with children
    • Long term stay in the UK (6-18 years); 2 were born in the UK (Group B)
    • Long-term involvement with the group – 5-18 years; 2 newer members (Group B)
    • Regular attendees of group meetings; satisfied with the group’s work and progress; getting sufficient chance to discuss issues important to them
  • 17. Motivation to join
    • GROUP A
      • Social responsibility – ‘as a woman and a mother’
      • Help people to solve their problems
      • Social support
    • “ With the changing conditions, women’s needs have changed. We need to work for ourselves instead of waiting for help .”
    • GROUP B
      • Build bridges between communities
      • Shared interest
      • Best for their children
    • “ They’re all women. We are all women . We all get up and make the children ready for the school and, you know, all the things are the same. You know? Differences are cultural or religious or different backgrounds but it doesn’t matter, we’re all women .”
  • 18. Benefits from group involvement GROUP A GROUP B
      • Empowerment
      • Political action/Social change
      • Self-improvement
      • Awareness
      • Helping people
      • Information/Knowledge
      • Social support/Social networks/Friendship
      • Better understanding of people from different backgrounds
      • Sharing experiences
      • Personal development
      • Women as actors
      • Affecting change
      • Information/Knowledge
      • Social support/social networks/Friendship
  • 19. Views about women’s activism: Social Change
    • “ Now migrant women are more conscious and aware because they are participating in life more than their partners, not necessarily deliberately but because of existing division of labour in the houses and long working hours of fathers outside of the house, and so more involved in children’s education, health problems, dealing with council tax. Therefore, they are more aware of problems and they want to be part of our activities .”
    • (Group A member)
    • “ In the past, [Group A] was mostly providing interpretation services but now we are aiming to unify all people here and fight for their rights . Because people come to the UK without knowing what will happen to them and whether they will settle down but now we are trying to represent ourselves in the elections .”
    • (Group A member)
  • 20. Views about women’s activism: Personal Change
    • “ I think as women we discuss, ... we get down to the groundwork, what fits in with our timetables and our children and that sort of thing so we can discuss … ”
    • (Group B member)
    • “ You know, women should, you know, obviously feel strongly about [Group B] but just being a member of any group would be beneficial, you know, whether it be a social group, whether it be a women’s group, whether it be an educational group, whether it be a dialogue group, language group … You know? Where there are people you’ve always got an opportunity to learn and develop. So, to belong to a group is always better than being isolated. ”
    • (Group B member)
  • 21. Community Activism and Change for Migrant Women
    • “ I had a very limited education in a very small town. After knowing this organisation, I feel I am a graduate of a life university . I was in a feudal society and inhibited. Heavy responsibilities of being a migrant, not losing our identity, improving ourselves are big efforts but I am so happy I succeeded .”
    • (Group A member)
    • “ When I came here I was alone and felt lonely. Through working together in [Group A] and with their support, I accomplished the things that I have now ... If I were on my own, I would have lost my culture and identity and I could have lost my children because they had to live in a different environment.
    • (Group A member)
  • 22. Community Activism and Change for Migrant Women
    • “ From my mum’s perspective, you know, when you’re outside of the edge of something you have a lot of reason to complain that oh but this hasn’t been done and why didn’t you think of that and why… You know, my mum is always complaining about, oh, but you should have done this better. I’m, like, mum if you really want to change it you have to be involved. … and, yeah, sometimes we get things right and sometimes we get things wrong, sometimes things are like mediocre … and you think OK well, next time, you know, these are the areas that we’ve had downfalls in so we need to improve these areas. So, you know, we always say if you really want to change something you have to be involved because just like we said to be on the receiving end of services can make you… I don’t know, a bit more vacant … ”
    • (Group B member)
  • 23. Conclusions
    • Our findings suggest that Turkish women in London experience post-migration hardship and social transformations which impact upon the way they perceive both their home and host countries.
    • Even if they may have acquired formal access to citizenship, yet they are still far from substantial citizenship – being a citizen – in their new country (Castles & Davidson, 2000)
    • Community activism is affecting migrant women’s lives in different ways.
    • Self-help and mutual activities of migrant communities aid their successful integration therefore mechanisms of change should be studied more closely in these organisations/groups
    • More research is needed to explore in depth how migrant women’s community activism is promoting personal and collective empowerment and what is their role in communicating and advocating the health and welfare needs of immigrant communities
  • 24. References
    • Boyd, M., & Grieco, E. (2003). Women and Migration: Incorporating Gender into International Migration Theory . Migration Information Source. Available: [2006, 2 June].
    • Çakir, S.G., Hatzidimitriadou, E. & Aydin, G. (forthcoming). Well being of Turkish migrant women and their access to health care services in the UK. Journal of Applied Social and Community Psychology.
    • Çakir, S.G. & Hatzidimitriadou, E. (2006) An approach for developing a culturally appropriate research tool for migrant women . Understanding & tackling ethnic inequalities in health - An ESRC Research Seminar Series, Seminar 5: Cultural Competence & Social Research: Emic & Etic Perspectives (My View or Their View), 24 April, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.
    • McFarlane, J., Malecha, A., Gist, J., Watson, K., Batten, E., Hall, I., & Sheil, S. (2002). Intimate partner violence against immigrant women: Measuring the effectiveness of protection orders. American Journal of Family Law , 16 , 244-252.
    • Small, R., Lumley, J., & Yelland, J. (2003). Cross-cultural experiences of maternal depression: associations and contributing factors for Vietnamese, Turkish and Filipino immigrant women in Victoria, Australia. Ethnicity & Health , 8, 189-206.
    • Williams, F. (2002). The presence of feminism in the future of welfare. Economy and Society , 31 (4), 502-519.