“Stay home” or lockdown measures, the most important public health management tool used worldwide to curb Covid-19 infection rates, have many unintended consequences, one of which is the increased violence against women. Many studies conducted in various parts of the world during the pandemic also conclude that loneliness is widespread among women (Groarke et. al, 2020). The psychological distress faced by women in Turkey is perhaps exemplary of these gendered consequences of living under the pandemic, and for them, the increase of loneliness as a result of social isolation during the pandemic is a form of violence in itself.
Gender inequality is deeply rooted in Turkish society and manifested in many ways, from imbalances in the gender employment ratio, to who is more likely to depend on public transportation. In Turkey, “less than 50% of women are employed, and roughly 24% of women have the ability to drive compared to nearly 76% of males who drive, making women are more dependent on public forms of transportation to reach destinations. These two statistics together should begin to illustrate the problem, especially considering that the new guidelines on public transportation due to Covid-19 are very strict. For example, residents under the age of 20 or over the age of 65 are barred using public transportation completely, and children must travel in the company of a parent or guardian. With the lockdowns and these new guidelines regarding public transportation, women are the most impacted. Of those who are employed, women are disproportionately in sectors such as childcare and teaching which have been replaced by distance learning, returning women to their homes. Unable to depend on public transportation, in addition to “stay home” orders, women’s confinement to their home has taken on a new meaning under pandemic context. In Turkey, the confinement has reinforced gender norms while also cutting off women from social networks, both strong (family and close friends) and weak (neighbors, coworkers) ties.
Why do women bear the greatest costs of social isolation? Firstly we remember that gender inequality lies at the bottom of all violence against women (Unal & Gulseren, 2020). Since the questions of social class and patriarchy determine the formation of social relationships, the social isolation of women during the pandemic has not been problematized in and of itself, nor in relation to other measures of women’s well-being, which is generally not counted in terms of “public health.” Meanwhile we can easily see the negative impact of social isolation on women in every aspect of life (family, relatives, friends, neighbors, academia, work etc.). A notable example of this is the decline in the desire to meet both physically and online with acquaintances every day. For women, staying home has led to withdrawal and disconnection from social life. Based on my observations, furthermore, it seems women that women who cannot pursue their existing social networks due to the disconnection, blame themselves for “inadequacy” and “loneliness.”
The conditions of the pandemic for women are arguably not that unfamiliar to housewives in Turkey. Loneliness is already the everyday experience of many Turkish housewives, who have spent almost all of their adult life on housework and caring for children, foregoing opportunities for earning their own money. Economic dependence on their husbands relegates women to the gendered space of the kitchen and child care. More than that, women are made vulnerable by this dependence as they may endure abusive domestic conditions due to a lack of economic power. In extreme cases, violence against women ends in lost lives. According to Turkish Women’s Aid Federation, at least 312 women were murdered in the Turkey between January and October of 2020. The Turkish Ministry of the Interior said that 27% fewer women were killed in the first 10 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019- however, but did not offer statistics to support that claim.
Whereas prior to the pandemic, women might have had opportunities to meet with family members, attend gatherings with friends, or host a tea for acquaintances at home, lockdown and “stay home” orders have put a stop to social occasions such as family gatherings, weddings, and tea-time, which form the core of Turkish women’s social obligations. Gathering with women friends is the only other social outlet for many housewives in Turkey. A typical social event for a Turkish housewife might be meeting with friends for a meal outside, or more commonly at a home or hosting one in her own home, all activities which are now prohibited.
While these social occasions may not have completely ended, they have become rarer or non-existent for many women during Turkey’s “stay home” orders, including weekend lockdowns. As a result, lives that have been spent mostly at home have been further confined. The specific context of social isolation related to the pandemic reinforces the feeling of intense loneliness that is already familiar for women who lead an isolated lifestyle, and have been subjected to economic and psychological violence throughout their lives.
The impact of social isolation on psychological well-being is well known, leading to a lack of self-confidence, depression and anxiety. However, isolation during the pandemic has compounded consequences for women in a country like Turkey were the patriarchal order places women in vulnerable gendered position. Government responses to Covid-19 have reinforced the burden of inequity and negative emotion, exposing the violence of patriarchy in its various forms in everyday life, and highlighting the existing disadvantages facing women. Without a clear end in sight to the pandemic, Turkish society will have to find new and creative ways to combat the loneliness and find strength in social solidarity.
Groarke, J., Berry, E., Graham-Wisener, L., McKenna-Plumley, P., McGlinchey, E., & Armour, C. (2020). “Loneliness in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic: Cross-sectional result from the Covid-19 Psychological Wellbeing Study.” PLos ONE, 15(9), 1-18.
Unal, B. & Gulseren, L. (2020). “Covid-19 pandemisinin görünmeyen yüzü: Aile içi kadına yönelik şiddet”, Klinik Psikiyatri Dergisi, 23, 89-94.
Merve Celtikci is a PhD student at Istanbul University, Department of Anthropology, in Istanbul. She works in the fields of migration, gender, women’s labor, paid/unpaid care and domestic work. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org