Questioning agency and empowerment: Women's work-related strategies and social class in urban Turkey

This article investigates different trajectories of agency and empowerment in diverse "work-related strategies" employed by women of different social classes in Istanbul, Turkey. I define "work-related strategies" as actions developed to cope with the difficulties related to working or not working, employed by women both in and out of the labor force. Based on in-depth interviews I conducted with 60 women from working, middle, and upper classes, both within and outside the labor force in Istanbul, Turkey, I categorize women's work-related strategies as (1) acceptance of (or preference for) traditional gender roles in the availability of resources from family, (2) clandestine acts used to gain maneuverability, (3) negotiations based on concessions, and finally (4) compensating for structural limitations. I argue that women's agency is class-specific because structural factors affect women from different classes differently, thus leading to the emergence of multiple work-related strategies for working, middle and upper-middle class women. These strategies may meet individual women's practical needs, but are far from fulfilling strategic gender needs. By adopting a critical feminist approach similar to those of Molyneux and Connell, I question the relationship between agency and empowerment in terms of women's work-related strategies in urban Turkey.