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Turkey’s Eastern Question: Educational Disparities and EU Accession

The North Anatolian Fault runs laterally from the Karliova Triple Junction in Erzincan, Turkey, westward to the Aegean Sea. Numerous deadly earthquakes have occurred along this fault line, the most recent of which devastated the city of Izmit in 1999, resulting in over 19,000 deaths. However, this is not the only significant fault line in modern Turkey. An invisible but certainly discernible line has separated eastern and western regions of the country since the Republic of Turkey was molded out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. This line marks vast developmental, demographic, and educational disparities that have, until recently, become more pronounced and threaten to derail Turkey’s European Union (EU) accession.

Kevin R. McClure is a researcher and practitioner at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is Assistant Director in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and teaches on global competency and the educational history of modern Turkey. He holds a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. His research specialties include Islamic education and modern Turkish history. His publications have appeared in the International Journal of Educational Development and Turkish Studies.

The four western regions of Turkey—Marmara, Aegean, Central Anatolia, and Mediterranean—are the four most socioeconomically developed regions of the country. Because Istanbul, which serves as the industrial heart of the country, and the capital city of Ankara are in Marmara and Central Anatolia respectively, western regions tend to be more urban and more densely populated. By contrast, the three eastern regions of Turkey—Black Sea, Eastern Anatolia, and Southeastern Anatolia—constitute the three least socioeconomically developed regions of the country (Erberber, 2009). In addition to being home to the country’s largest concentration of Kurds, these regions are largely rural, and their populations decrease annually due to westward migration to urban centers (Koç, Hancioğlu, & Cavlin, 2008). In short, borrowing from a World Bank (2001) report, “the level of economic development declines from west to east, such that while the west broadly resembles a West European industrial economy, the east is still in many respects akin to a developing economy” (p. 1).

Disparities between eastern and western regions of Turkey extend beyond development and demography to include issues of educational access, quality, and equity. According to Turkey’s Ministry of National Education (MNE), enrollment rates at the pre-primary and primary levels in the state school system are higher in western versus eastern regions. Due to the distance between schools in eastern regions, the MNE augmented a busing and boarding school program in 1997 to raise primary school enrollment rates. Western regions enjoy a lower pupil-teacher ratio, and generally outperform eastern regions on international and national examinations (Erberber, 2009). Lastly, gender and language factor more prominently in the educational experiences of students in eastern regions (Coker, 2002; Soykan, 2003). According to UNICEF (2003), gender differences are greater in rural compared to urban areas in Turkey, and female illiteracy is highest in the Black Sea, Eastern Anatolia, and Southeastern Anatolia regions. Although Kurdish is widely spoken in homes across eastern regions of the country, Turkish is the national language and language of instruction in the state school system (Soykan, 2003). Therefore, many students in eastern regions are not permitted to speak, read, write, or otherwise learn in their mother language of Kurdish (Skutnabb-Kangas & Fernandes, 2008).

The line separating eastern and western regions of Turkey is a concern for the EU, which fears the destabilizing effect and lack of cohesion caused by vast socioeconomic inequality within a member country. Education is considered a crucial instrument in advancing regional stability and cohesion (Erberber, 2009). By implementing targeted educational policy in eastern regions, Turkey may reduce socioeconomic disparities and increase the likelihood of EU accession. The aim of this study, then, is to inform educational policy through description and explanation of disparities of access, quality, and equity between eastern and western regions. While much attention has been paid to issues such as Kurdish identity and separatism (Heper, 2007; Marcus, 2007; White, 2000; Kaya, 2009; de Bellaigue, 2010), economic development and urban migration (Tansel, 2002; Kaplan, 2006; Olgun, Gümüş, Adanacioğlu, 2009), and the status of women in Turkey (Coker, 2002; Sayılan, 2008), relatively little research has been conducted on disparities of educational access, quality, and equity across regions. As this study demonstrates, generating a comprehensive set of explanations of Turkey’s uneven educational landscape requires consideration of all of these issues.

Three explanations for regional disparities of educational access, quality, and equity at the pre-primary through primary level are patently evident. First, the Turkish state’s preoccupation with “national unity” resulting in policy that prohibits: 1) instruction in Kurdish; or 2) learning Kurdish as a subject in school has hindered success within the state school system for students who identify as Kurdish. Second, the state’s national development plans emphasizing product exportation through industrialization have fueled the rapid development of western provinces to the neglect of eastern provinces, causing continued poverty and massive westward migration to urban centers. Third, the state’s endorsement and perpetuation of policies that favor boys, when coupled with cultural norms of the eastern regions, to a greater degree limit girls from accessing and reaching levels of education comparable to girls in western regions, or levels of education that will help Turkey realize its goal of EU membership. The state’s nationalist, export-oriented, and patriarchal policies explain why educational disparities between eastern and western regions persist—disparities that weaken Turkey’s readiness for EU accession.

Turkey’s Landscapes


The State Planning Office (SPO) declared in its Ninth Development Plan 2007-2013 that by 2013 Turkey seeks to be an “information society, growing in stability, sharing more equitably, globally competitive, [having] fully completed her coherence with the European Union” (SPO, 2006, p. 11). This goal certainly seems possible, given that Turkey is among the twenty largest economies in the world and growing at a rate of over 8 percent annually (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2010). Nevertheless, economic growth is not the sole measure of development. In the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) for 2010, Turkey ranked 84 out of 169 countries, placing it in the high human development category after over three decades in the medium development category (UNDP, 2010). In terms of education, however, Turkey ranked 109 out of 179 countries. Breaking down development by region, the SPO—using its Socioeconomic Development Index (SDI)—found clear inequalities between eastern and western regions based upon 58 variables, including employment, education, health, infrastructure, manufacturing, and construction. With the country average at zero, the Marmara region at 1.7 was the most developed region. The Aegean and Central Anatolia regions were the next most developed regions at approximately .48, and the Mediterranean region was close to the national average at .02. The Black Sea, Southeastern Anatolia, and Eastern Anatolia regions fell below the national average at -.51, -1.0, and -1.16 respectively (Erberber, 2009).

The developmental disparities between eastern and western regions do not improve when one considers indicators in isolation. For example, in 1997 “two-thirds of the population were concentrated in the west of the country in half the land area, accounting for 82 percent of national [Gross Domestic Product] GDP, and with GDP per head 23 percent above the national average. In the east, GDP per head was 53 percent of the national average” (European Commission, p. 157). More specifically, the GDP per capita ratio in 2000 for the Marmara region was 1.49, while in the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions it was .33 and .49 in that order. As Şahin and Gülmez (2000) asserted, “the average income and the rate of annual increase in the [Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia] regions have always been the lowest of all other regions. This indicated that people in these regions were poorer on average than people in the other regions” (p. 222). Infant mortality is also a greater concern in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, where the infant mortality rate averages 51 percent—that is, 38 percent higher than the Mediterranean region’s rate of 37 percent (Akkoyunlu-Wigley & Wigley, 2009). Accordingly, from a developmental standpoint, an unmistakable line separates the more developed western regions from the less developed eastern regions of the country.


In spite of the historic homogenizing tendencies of the state, Turkey is not ethnically uniform, nor are ethnic minorities evenly distributed across the regions of the country. Turks constitute the largest ethnic group in Turkey (83 percent), followed by Kurds (15 percent) and Arabs (2 percent) (Soykan, 2003). Koç, Hancioğlu, and Cavlin (2008) estimated that the Kurdish population has increased from 3.1 million in 1965 to 10.2 million in 2003, a 3.3 percent annual increase. The exact number of Kurdish-speakers in Turkey is unknown. After 1965, the state did not publish census information on languages spoken at home or in religious activities. These questions, furthermore, were removed from the 1985 census (Soykan, 2003). Still, two recent estimates have been proffered. Özsoy, Koç, and Toros (1992) argued that 7 million people, or 10 percent of the population, spoke Kurdish as their mother language, while Yıldız (1999) put forth an estimate of 20 percent of the population. Regardless of the estimate, it is apparent that Kurdish speakers represent “a numerical minority [who] are…not in the dominant position with respect to protection of their linguistic identity” (Soykan, 2003, p. 65). But the state does not consider Kurds minorities, as the concept of minority was refused to Muslims within Turkey’s borders, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, or language.

Although Kurds and Kurdish-speakers live in all of Turkey’s seven regions, the largest concentrations live in the east and southeast of the country. Starting first from a general perspective, Koç, Hancioğlu, and Cavlin (2008) calculated that largest percentage of those who self-identified as Turks—43 percent—live in the western part of Turkey and 69 percent of those who self-identified as Kurds lived in the east. In Ergil’s (1995) study using household surveys in six cities within the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions (Diyarbakir, Mardin, Adana, Mersin, and Antalya), 90.8 percent of respondents identified as Kurdish (as cited in Şahin & Gülmez, 2000). Özdag (1995) asked 8,802 people in the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions what language they spoke at home, and 41.1 percent reported Kurdish versus 28.3 percent Turkish (as cited in Şahin & Gülmez, 2000). The number of Kurds living in the western regions of the country is increasing, but this does not mean as many Kurds live in the western as eastern regions: “After 28 years of massive migration movements out of the eastern provinces, a large majority of Kurds (69%) are still living in the eastern provinces” (Koç, Hancioğlu, & Cavlin, p. 450). Nevertheless, the least developed regions are even today the most ethnically and linguistically Kurdish regions of Turkey.


Turkey requires eight years of compulsory primary education between the ages of six and fourteen, which is provided free of charge. By contrast, pre-primary education is optional and not universally offered tuition-free. The gross enrollment rate (GER) of pre-primary education in Turkey was in 2006 13 percent, which is the lowest among EU member and candidate countries and below the EU average of 85 percent (European Commission, 2009). Erberber (2009) used Ministry of National Education data and found that the Aegean (22 percent), Marmara (19 percent), and Central Anatolia (19 percent) regions recorded the highest GER, with all three regions surpassing the national average. Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia recorded the lowest GER at 11 percent. By analyzing GER between 1980 and 1994, Tansel and Gungor developed an “interprovince inequality index” to measure inequalities, with zero signifying no inequalities and one signifying high inequality. The index values range from 0.004 in Ankara to 0.193 in Ağrı, which is in the Eastern Anatolia region. These results do not surprise the authors, as “eastern provinces are well behind in schooling investments relative to western provinces” (p. 10).

Primary education enrollment is likewise unequal across Turkey’s regions, with western regions outperforming eastern regions. Data on net enrollment rate (NER) by province published by the MNE’s National Education Statistics 2008-2009 suggests access to primary education is easier in western compared to eastern Turkey. The top five provinces in terms of NER were Ankara and Izmir, which are home to the second and third most populous cities in the country, followed by Mersin, Kocaeli, and Aydın. All five of these provinces are in the western regions of Central Anatolia, Marmara, and Aegean. Four of the five provinces with the lowest NER were in the regions of Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia: Hakkarı, Bitlis, Muş, and Van. Only Yozgat, which is in Central Anatolia, deviates from the pattern suggested by this data.

Indicators of quality in Turkey’s state school system are relatively easier to find than indicators of access, thanks in large part to Erberber’s (2009) study of regional disparities in eighth grade science achievement. To answer whether science achievement varied regionally according to level of economic development, Erberber analyzed results from Turkey’s 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Her analysis demonstrated that the Marmara, Aegean, and Central Anatolia regions produced the highest average achievement, whereas the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions were the lowest achieving. Perhaps more pointedly, the average score of Marmara was 46 points higher than the average score of Southeastern Anatolia. To put these results in their proper context, “This means that, for example, in Southeastern Anatolia nearly half of the students (43 percent) did not reach the lowest benchmark, indicating that they did not demonstrate a grasp of even the most basic facts of science” (p. 101).

Part of the reason achievement on international and national examinations may be higher in western regions of the country is that the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) is higher in the eastern regions. Regional PTR is not calculated by the MNE, but Şahin and Gülmez (2000) estimated it at 33:1 in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia and 25:1 for the western part of the country. Low achievement on international and national examinations may also arise from insufficient resources. As a 2005 World Bank Sector Study recounted, more than half of parents with low incomes and from rural parts of the country were concerned about the educational conditions to which their children were subjected, while only one third of parents from urban areas had the same concerns. Taken together, these indicators imply that, despite the state’s desire to provide all students with the same compulsory educational experience, the quality of one’s education in Turkey may be geographically-contingent.

It is possible to take this exploration of regional disparities in educational equity one step further by including gender. Not only are access and quality worse in eastern regions of the country, but female students run up against more limits to accessing and reaching desired levels of educational attainment in these regions than their counterparts in western regions. Female enrollment at the primary level, for instance, was around 48 percent in 1999 for all regions except Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia. In the Southeastern region, the female share of enrollment was 44 percent and it was 42 percent in the Eastern region (Coker, 2002). In 10 of the 23 provinces in these two regions, females account for less than one third of the student population. UNICEF relates low female enrollment in primary education to the high incidence of female illiteracy in Eastern Anatolia (39 percent), Southeastern Anatolia (35 percent), and the Black Sea (21 percent) region. Coker (2002) also noted that attrition is a severe issue in the regions of Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia: “by the time fifth grade students reached eighth grade close to half of the female students and one fifth of the male students had dropped out from the schooling system” (p. 141). This attrition may be due to westward migration, but migration does not explain how attrition is almost twice as high for females. The Turkish state has not enacted measures to correct or counteract the tendency for females to be kept away from school or encouraged to leave school early. As will become clear in the next section, the state and its policies may be responsible for the creation and perpetuation of disparities of educational access, quality, and equity between eastern and western regions.

Explaining Regional Disparities

According to Keyder and Üstündağ (2006), a popular notion in Turkey is that the low educational achievement of the eastern regions stems from cultural and ethnic background of the people in those regions (as cited in Erberber, 2009). However, it is not culture or ethnicity of the people that inherently causes lower educational achievement. Rather, it is the way the state approaches ethnicity and culture, in addition to development and gender, through policy that explains the disparities of educational access, quality, and equity between eastern and western regions of the country.

Happy Is He Who Calls Himself a Turk

“National unity” is a recurring concept in Turkey’s current constitution. Article Three, for instance, proclaims that the Turkish state is an indivisible entity. Likewise, Article Five affirms that the upholding the integrity of the nation is one of the primary duties of the state. All citizens, according to Turkish courts, regardless of ethnicity, are subject to laws requiring that they preserve national unity. Therefore, all eighteen-year-old males must serve in the military, which is considered a great honor to some and a great burden to others. No citizen may publicly express ideas or opinions that violate the principle of “national unity,” as stipulated in Article Twenty-Six: “the right to freedom of expression may be restricted for the purposes of protecting…the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation” (as cited in Soykan, 2003, p. 68). Political organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in activities designed to advance any language or cultures that would “create minorities” and “lead to the destruction of integrity of the Turkish nation” (as cited in Soykan, p. 68). The principle of “national unity” also affects education. The first responsibility of the Ministry of National Education based on the Basic Law of National Education is unabashedly nationalist:

[T]o raise individuals who are committed to Atatürk’s reforms and principles, his concept of nationalism as defined in the Constitution; who adopt, protect and improve the national, moral, human, spiritual and cultural values of the Turkish nation; who love and always elevate their families; homeland and nation; who are aware of their duties and responsibilities towards the Turkish Republic. (MNE, 2005, p. 17)

As if attempting to capture Atatürk’s entire approach to nation-state building in a single sentence, the law ends by articulating that Turkish education should “support and accelerate economic, cultural, and social development in national unity and cohesion, and…make the Turkish nation a constructive, creative and distinguished partner of contemporary civilization” (MNE, p. 17).

The principle of “national unity” manifests itself in educational policy in two ways, both of which hinder success within the state school system of Kurdish students. First, the Kurdish language is flatly rejected as a medium of instruction or subject of study. Second, the existence of Kurdish identity is purposefully ignored in school settings, and positive references to Kurds in the national curriculum at the primary level are non-existent (Kaya, 2009). Article Forty Two of the constitution states that no language other than Turkish can be taught to citizens as their mother tongue in any educational or training institutions (Soykan, 2003). This means that Kurdish-medium schools are not permitted in Turkey, and students cannot learn Kurdish as a subject in school. Kurdish courses for teenagers and adults are, in theory, permissible, but substantial obstacles often prevent them from being offered (Skutnabb-Kangas & Fernandes, 2008). Only minority groups recognized by the state (non-Muslims) are able to open their own schools and opt out of mandatory courses on culture and ethics of Sunni Halefi Islam (Kaya, 2009). The state interprets any advocacy on behalf of Kurdish language rights as “aiding and abetting” a terrorist organization, mainly because the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) produces propaganda stressing these rights in education (as cited in Skutnabb-Kangas & Fernandes, 2008).

The PKK formed in 1978 under the leadership of university drop-outs and professional leftist revolutionaries to create a separate Kurdish nation through armed conflict. In the early years of their nationalist struggle, PKK recruitment in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia focused on one-on-one conversations with youth. The message of this interaction was clear and repeated: Kurds form an ethnicity distinct from Turks and deserve their own nation, which can only be accomplished through armed conflict. This message proved attractive to youth accustomed to harsh treatment from the state. As one former leader of the organization put it: “you remembered when the soldiers came to your village and you were afraid, these things leave marks on a person. Also, as a child, from the day you were old enough to understand things, you realized something was different. The language you spoke was different” (Marcus, p. 37). Early recruits were university and teachers’ school students, until eventually the PKK started to recruit secondary school drop-outs and even younger students.

Their [recruits’] origins were rooted in the poor, mainly landless villagers that comprised the overwhelming majority of Kurdish society, families with close to a dozen children, illiterate mothers, and a tough life based on small scale farming and animal husbandry. Going to school usually entailed boarding with relatives far from home, or vying for one of the coveted spots in the state-run regional boarding schools. (Marcus, p. 37)

Students formed committees in villages across Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, with PKK recruiters supplying booklets that extolled the revolution and painted the state and its institutions as imperialist enemies of an autonomous Kurdistan.

Whereas the PKK’s response to Kurdish identity was pride, resistance, and affirmation, the state’s response was silence, particularly in terms of the national curriculum. Pictures and busts of Atatürk adorn the entrances of virtually every school in the state system. Classrooms also display a copy of his speech to the Turkish youth, in which Atatürk tells them their “first duty is ever to preserve and defend national independence, the Turkish Republic”. Students in state schools are also required to recite an oath each morning that ends with “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” (Kayan, 2009, p. 26). The national curriculum creates a domain of knowledge wherein being anything other than Turkish is not possible. History textbooks focus on the life and heroic accomplishments of Atatürk. The MNE hopes through education to hasten assimilation of Kurdish youth, “teaching them the Turkish language and history as if it were their own” (Marcus, 2007, p. 26). Furthermore, state policy has included removing Kurdish youth from their home environment and sending them to regional boarding schools. The result within the state school system in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia is dueling nationalisms, triggering educational policy that enforces the principle of “national unity” at the expense of pluralism.

Exports and Education

The State Planning Office (SPO) was created through an article of the 1960 constitution and charged with drafting five-year development plans. Between 1960 and 1980, these plans were aimed at import substitution through industrialization. These plans were in response to the fact that the majority of consumer products in Turkey came from abroad (Zürcher, 1993). The state encouraged the growth of industry within Turkey, and import restrictions meant that domestic firms never had to compete against foreign firms. “The new industries were spread very unevenly among the regions, the vast majority being established in the Istanbul area, with smaller concentrations around Izmir and Adana” in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions (Zürcher, p. 279). Despite rapid industrialization of the western regions, the Turkish economy remained vulnerable. When combined with the recession in Europe, the 1973-4 oil crisis pushed the Turkish economy to the brink of disaster. The state began negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and OECD in 1978, which ended in Turkey receiving loans in exchange for a commitment to introduce reforms: abolishing controls on imports; reducing government spending; ending subsidies; and liberalizing trade. Ultimately, the reforms were meant to craft an export-oriented free market economy (Zürcher). Thus, the state embraced neoliberal economic policy to promote economic growth and, concurrently, stimulate development.

One outcome of the state’s export-oriented neoliberal policy was neglect of the agricultural sector, which was largely located in eastern regions of the country. The agricultural sector as a share of GDP contracted as the industrial and service sectors increased (State Planning Office, 2001). The gap between rich and poor also widened due in part to the state’s economic policy, with a new class of industrialists emerging in western regions. At the same time, there was very real poverty in many Turkish homes, particularly in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia. As reported in a World Bank study (2001), the province of Kocaeli, which is near Istanbul, had in 1998 a per capita GDP of $7,501—almost nine times larger than the GDP per capita of Ağrı, a province bordering Iran. According to UNESCO, analyses from international education assessments prove that the home background of students is correlated with school outcomes. Tansel (2002) tested this correlation in Turkey with data from the state’s household income and expenditures survey, concluding that “the most consistent factors affecting school attainment were parents’ education and household permanent income” (p. 456). More accurately, higher household income increased the probability of higher schooling achievements. Similarly, Olgun, Gümüş, and Adanacioğlu (2009) in a survey of 386 households in rural Turkey found that 44.7 percent of farmers interviewed gave low income as the reason for children not continuing at school. For the lowest income group, almost 60 percent of interviewees cited income as the most important factor adversely affecting education level. Although the state’s development plans have led to economic growth, a hyper emphasis on exportation through industrialization was detrimental to the agricultural sector, making poverty an enduring problem in eastern regions.

The uneven development of eastern versus western regions of the country has also spurred massive urban migration. Cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Adana have seen their populations multiply, and the percentage of people living in cities between 1950 and 1990 more than doubled (Kaplan, 2006). Tansel (2002) maintained that, in additional industrialization, “mechanization of agriculture, wide sectoral and regional differences in productivity and more recently terrorist activities in the east and southeast have been responsible for the population movements” (p. 466). The desire to capture their own slice of western prosperity, in the eyes of Kaplan (2006), may also have been a motivating factor in the decision to migrate, although this dream is often difficult to attain: “children and adults feel caught between an immediate space of poverty and a horizon of consumerism, between a villageness that they shun and an extralocal urban/e world that seems beyond their reach” (p. 128). Urban migration need not always be detrimental to education. In fact, Tansel (2002) suggested that migration possibilities increase schooling attainment by allowing students to capitalize on higher returns to their educational investment through a job in an urban area. However, urban migration also has the effect of making the population of eastern regions even sparser, justifying the decision to construct regional schools, rather than provide a primary school in each village. This makes accessing education difficult and also leads to quality concerns.

Among the relevant findings of Olgun, Gümüş, and Adanacioğlu’s (2009) study on rural households in Turkey was the fact that 39.25 percent of the villages visited had no primary school. On average, students in rural villages travelled 11.2 kilometers to attend school. For this reason, the state instituted a busing program nearly twenty years ago. Still, busing is not a cure-all: poor road infrastructure, challenging geography, and adverse weather conditions can make regular attendance at school an arduous undertaking and even impinge on performance. Furthermore, the study recorded a rap sheet of quality concerns.

[I]n many villages there were too few teachers, many lessons went untaught, students from different classes were brought together and taught in one crowded room, schools had technical shortcomings, teachers changed frequently because they could not adapt to rural conditions, teachers were not qualified, and in particular there was a shortage of teachers in some subjects so that teachers were teaching classes outside their field of expertise. (Olgun, Gümüş, & Adanacioğlu, p. 539).

In 1997, when compulsory education was extended to eight years, the MNE unveiled its Basic Education Program to address these concerns. The program included building new classrooms and schools, as well as increasing busing services and the capacities of boarding schools. Other plans to improve quality in underserved regions include supplying schools with computers and transitioning from double-shift to full-day education (Erberber, 2009). The Ninth Five-Year Development Plan also featured, for the first time in the history of the SPO, a section on “Ensuring Regional Development”. Both the Basic Education Program and Ninth Five-Year Development Plan are corrective in nature. They seek to fix disparities of educational access and quality that surfaced because of the state’s export-oriented approach to economic growth and development.

“Come on Girls, Let’s Go to School!”

Turkey has paid increasing attention to girls’ education since it became an EU candidate. This attention has improved but not yet changed the fact that females across the country are more often illiterate, enroll in lower numbers, drop-out in higher numbers, and record lower levels of attainment than males at every level of education (Coker, 2002; UNESCO, 2003; Sayılan, 2008). Apart from this obvious lack of gender parity, the situation of females in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia is comparatively worse than in western regions. “The gender inequalities in education have been increasing in Eastern and Southeastern regions. Poverty, living in [a] rural area, forced migration, and some other obstacles make girls’ accessibility to education even harder” (Sayılan, p. 252). The culture of rural areas, which tends to be conservative, represents the “other obstacles” to which Sayılan referred. Researchers blame disparity of educational access and attainment for girls on the unwillingness of rural parents to send their daughters to school far from home or to boarding schools, preferring instead that they take up local agricultural employment or housework (Olgun, Gümüş, Adancioğlu, 2009). Kaplan (2006) reiterated that parents in the town of Yayla in the Southeastern region place greater emphasis on the education of sons than daughters. In fact, custom still holds that daughters are married around age fifteen or sixteen. Restrictions on women are especially acute in Kurdish society, where an unmarried woman often cannot work or travel alone. Traditional Kurdish marital relations are defined by female subservience, and Kurdish husbands are given cultural license to beat or divorce disrespectful or argumentative wives (Marcus, 2007). Hence, culture is a significant component in explaining the severe gender inequalities of eastern regions. However, this study argues that measures aimed at fairness, or equality of result, are few in Turkey due to the patriarchal policies of the state, which are only exacerbated by cultural norms.

The MNE shares the view of many researchers that cultural norms and family background dictate educational access and attainment in education. Stromquist (1990) posited that home-related obstacles such as the attitude of parents and socio-economic status undoubtedly play a role in hindering gender parity. But there are also school-related obstacles, including distance to school, the gender of teachers, and the content of the curriculum. The state, as Stromquist argued, was the key entity regulating life within both homes and schools and, consequently, home-related and school-related obstacles should not be considered independently. The MNE, the state’s flagship educational institution, does not assume accountability for gender inequalities and has enacted policies that reinforce gendered roles and favor males. As a result of directing resources toward equality of opportunity, the MNE repeatedly claims that under the law all students, regardless of gender, have the right to education—if a student does not enroll or drops out, the student’s family or his/her own ineptitude are to blame (Coker, 2002). Thus, state programs are chiefly aimed at family education, which in practice means educating mothers about hygiene, child-care, and family planning. Kaplan (2006) noted that fears of high birth rates in the eastern regions fueling greater urban migration led to widespread programs on increasing awareness of contraceptives. “Come on Girls, Let’s Go to School!” was a massive campaign in which teachers and school officials went door to door to discuss with families the value of educating their daughters. This campaign has successfully raised female enrollment at the primary level, but the eastern regions still lag behind western regions (Coker, 2002; Erberber, 2009).

Aside from the “Let’s Go to School!” campaign, virtually all state resources have been dedicated to other aspects of the Basic Education Program, notably busing and boarding schools. Coker (2002) argued that, since parents are hesitant to send girls to schools far away or boarding schools, these policies favor boys. Furthermore, the state has failed to bear in mind that equity involves more than equal enrollments. No programs have been created to address the gender stereotypes that plague the Turkish primary curriculum, or to train teachers to recognize differentiated treatment of students by gender (Coker, 2002). Thus, while the number of girls enrolling in school is increasing, the matter of girls leaving school early has not yet been tackled by the state. The end result is a set of policies that favor males without adequately countering the sway of cultural norms that force girls to leave school early. Patriarchal policies help explain why eastern regions continue to struggle with educational inequities to a greater degree than western regions.

Conclusion: Regional Disparities in the EU Era

This study attempted to forge a comprehensive set of explanations for disparities of educational access, quality, and equity between Turkey’s eastern and western regions. The common thread running throughout the explanations above was the role of the state in creating and perpetuating these disparities. State policy influenced by Turkish nationalism has limited the success within the school system of students who speak Kurdish or, in spite of the state’s assimilationist approach, retain a strong send of their Kurdish identity. In the eyes of the state, students should happily embrace their latent Turkishness and celebrate a domain of knowledge that excludes, marginalizes, or criminalizes Kurdishness. Competing with this view is the propaganda of Kurdish nationalists, who see the state school system as a tool of Turkey’s imperialist regime.

Such competition complicates the already difficult task of attending schools that are far from home, where teachers use what can be an unfamiliar language in the classroom. Distance to school and the quality of education in eastern regions is exacerbated by massive urban migration. The state’s development plans have oriented the Turkish economy towards industrialization and exportation in a free market. Accordingly, western regions, as the principal beneficiaries of industrialization, have become richer as the eastern regions remain rural and poor. In addition to the distance required to attend school, low income has been cited as one of the main factors driving students in eastern regions to stop their education prior to completion. Lastly, cultural norms working in tandem with patriarchal state policies limit access to education for girls and fail to address the forces causing girls to leave school early.

The future of the fault line dividing eastern and western regions will be determined by Turkey’s EU accession. Both the reigning political party—the Justice and Development Party—and public opinion favor EU membership. The Accession Partnership Document drafted in 2000 makes clear the reforms Turkey must enact if it wishes to become a full member of EU. This document, which is more of a “roadmap” than a binding contract, outlines that Turkey must demonstrate “respect for and protection of minorities,” referring explicitly to language rights in education (Soykan, 2003). Education is seen by the EU and other international organizations as a way for Turkey to improve uneven development and social cohesion, thereby reducing the likelihood of economic instability (Erberber, 2009). EU progress reports make it painfully evident that Turkey is not meeting expectations in the area of improving equity, specifically girls’ educational access and attainment.

Thus, Turkey’s roadmap to accession requires that it addresses regional disparities of educational access, quality, and equity for political, economic, and cultural reasons. Virtually all of Turkey’s recent educational programs and development plans, which place unprecedented importance on improving education and development in the eastern regions, are products of EU accession negotiations. So long as Turkey introduces reforms with the hope of becoming a full member of the EU, regional disparities will likely decline. The pace of this decline remains uncertain, and complete disappearance of educational disparities between eastern and western regions will be a long term project. In other words, thanks to EU accession efforts, the fault line dividing eastern and western regions of Turkey has recently become less pronounced, but it is still unquestionably a part of Turkey’s future.


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  • February 7, 2021