Female business owners stand up to economic crisis -- and sexism

Every woman needs “a room of her own,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Turkish women today seem to have taken inspiration from this idea, starting their own cafés and bars and realizing their dreams.

Eylem Atasever recently moved from Bursa to Izmir with her 4-year-old son. A 30-year-old former textile worker, Atasever decided to open her own cafe in Alsancak, one of Izmir’s liveliest districts. But the space she had purchased needed a great deal of renovation. After getting overcharged by contractors, she decided to do the job herself.

“I even did the bathroom myself,” she said proudly. “At the hardware store across the street, they’d laugh at me, saying ‘How are you going to do this work?’ When I finished, I was surprised, too. If I’d let those men’s words beat me down, I would’ve closed this place before it even opened.”

Now Çulha Café is open and Atasever even sells her own handmade dresses alongside cakes and coffees. Turkey's lingering economic crisis doesn’t scare her. “I had to leave school because of the 2001 crisis,” she recalled. “My childhood ended early, and I didn’t have a youth. Now I want to live out my dreams in my middle age.”

In Turkey, women make up just over 17 percent of managers and business owners. They face the same rough economic terrain as men, but also must stand up to sexist rhetoric and interference from people who oppose secular lifestyles.

Women are also more affected by economic and social inequality -- particularly in times of economic crisis, female professionals are the first to make sacrifices. Despite all this, among Alsancak’s abundant bars and cafés, the number of women business owners is increasing.

Emine Alagöz is the trendsetter -- she was the first female business owner on the street when she opened Kırmızı Bar seven years ago.

“When I first opened this place, people really pushed me around,” the 37-year-old recalled. “In the first week, a bullet came through the window—it missed me by about three seconds. Our customers didn’t really like this street then, but I didn’t have a choice because I put everything into this place.”

In time, Alagöz’s relations with her neighbours improved, but it was not only violence she faced. There were also prejudices like the idea that only bad women run bars.

“For example, I’d never met my boyfriend’s family, but without even coming here they decided they were against our relationship,” she said. “I grew up with the luxury of not having a father in our home. My mother gave me a lot of material and moral support—she makes some of the stuff I sell here. But after I opened the bar, a lot of our relatives stopped saying hello when they passed by.”

Alagöz also pointed out that Izmir’s historically secular lifestyle has begun to change. “The dynamics of this street changed as more women opened businesses, but it’s the complete opposite everywhere else. A woman from another city will notice Izmir isn’t as comfortable as it used to be.”

She has struggled with the price increases on alcohol and other products, particularly in the last year as the Turkish lira weakened against the dollar. “We’ve only raised our prices once,” she said. “Otherwise, we’d lose all our customers.”

Alagöz’s tenacity in keeping the place open has inspired other women to follow her lead. Just down the street is No: 9, a bar owned by Tülay Türker, who worked as a corporate manager for 20 years.

“I had a car, a house, and a good salary, but I wasn’t happy,” she recalled. She resigned and opened a bar. The first year was tough, but she told herself: “We’re not making much, but it’s our own.”

She talked about being a woman business owner on a male-dominated street. “When we were doing the renovations, people said things like, ‘What business does a woman have running a bar?’ but they got used to us,” said Türker. “We have a lot of female customers who try to support us, but after a certain amount of alcohol, people can start talking nonsense. That’s why we close at midnight—it’s too risky otherwise.”

She said government initiatives to support women in business are insufficient. “Women still need to be brave,” said Türker. “Everything about this job is difficult, but after opening your own place, you feel like you can do anything. It gives people confidence.”

56-year-old Hülya Atılgan, owner of Kozalak Café, was a child bride and has published four books of poetry. For her, marriage was a feudal bond, and she had to forge a new path. “In my house, I have a room of my own,” she explained. “I created my own world [there], so I had to do it outside, too.”

Atılgan opened her café-bar five years ago as a way of reflecting her world.

“People sit in cafés to socialize, despite everything else going wrong,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the crisis. If I were, I wouldn’t be able to carry on. The intimate atmosphere I’ve created here is enough for me. My customers help keep me on my feet—they want to support a woman-owned bar.”

Former street artist Nilüfer Gürbüz opened Frida Café six months ago, and has dealt with sexist and racist ever since.

“The male business owners don’t say things like ‘Your tea is bad,’” she said. “Instead, it’s ‘Why do women stay here?’ and ‘Why do they sit with men till late at night?’ But they also say, ‘They’re Kurdish, they support the Kurdish party.’ They try to hit you with everything except how you do business.”

She admits the crisis has been tough. “It doesn’t just affect what we buy—it affects our psychology and our customers’ too,” said Gürbüz. “People who ordered lots of things four months ago now only buy a coffee and sit for two hours. We just opened, but we’re wondering how we’ll pay the rent. I had to let one of our workers go yesterday. It was really sad.”

With the Turkish lira strengthening against the dollar in recent weeks, people are wondering if the economic crisis is ending. Possibly, but in the last 18 months, more than 20,000 businesses in Turkey have shut their doors.

Selin Parla, a sociology graduate, has been running the vegan Tyke Café for a year and a half. The café runs support networks for street animals and for trans people. The poor and hungry can barter for food and drinks. For Parla, Tyke is more than a retail establishment, it’s a social enterprise. But she is also struggling in the weak economy.

“I’d always wanted to open a café, but I wasn’t brave enough,” she said. “I finally did it, except I never thought how much a crisis would affect me. People keep telling me to raise my prices, but if everyone is losing money, what good will it do? Lots of places are shutting down every day. In the beginning, the idea of closing made me so sad, but now I’m mentally preparing myself.”