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Journal of Human Development

Vol. 8, No. 2, July 2007

A Relational Account of Nussbaums List of


Pinar Uyan-Semerci is Assistant Professor in the Department of International
Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey

Abstract Nussbaums capabilities approach is based on a universalistic

account of central human functionings. She claims that if central human
capabilities are located within a particular kind of political liberalism, then
they can become specific political goals and the object of an overlapping
consensus among people who otherwise have very different
comprehensive conceptions of the good. This paper reconsiders these
arguments on the basis of fieldwork conducted among migrant women
living in squatter settlements of Istanbul. By going through Nussbaums
list of central human capabilities, I elaborate their relevance in terms of the
existing, stated and desired capabilities of these women. In doing so, I
underline the importance of thinking about capabilities in relational terms
and challenge the concept autonomous agency. I also demonstrate the
(im)possibility of separating the political and non-political realms,
particularly in issues regarding religion and family, and argue for the
need to redefine the boundaries of the political within the capability

Key words: Capabilities, Women, Agency, Political liberalism, Family,


The basic claim of the capability approach is to measure the well-being of a
person by taking into consideration what he or she succeeds in doing and
being. This starting point is precisely where the approach derives its
strength because it genuinely attempts to develop an understanding of
human diversity (i.e. it takes into account whether people are handi-
capped or able-bodied, pregnant or not, young or old, etc.). The practical
goal is to provide the necessary conditions through which capabilities can
be developed. Ultimately the argument goes that the ways in which needs
can be satisfied or how a person can function depends on each persons
decision. Although two persons have the same set of means, they may have

ISSN 1464-9888 print/ISSN 1469-9516 online/07/020203-19 # 2007 United Nations Development Programme
DOI: 10.1080/14649880701371034
Pinar Uyan-Semerci

totally different opportunities due to variations of personal and non-

personal kind (Sen, 1990, pp. 111121).
Martha Nussbaum starts from a more philosophical point of view than
Sens capability approach: she focuses on Aristotelian ideas about human
nature and proposes a more concrete list of capabilities for human beings
to function and to fulfil their human potential (Nussbaum, 1988, 1990,
1992, 2000b, 2001, 2004). Furthermore, Nussbaum sets her list of central
human capabilities in the context of a type of political liberalism, where
the central human capabilities are articulated in terms of specifically
political goals. She argues that the capabilities can be the object of an
overlapping consensus among people, who otherwise have very different
comprehensive conceptions of the good.1 Nussbaum claims in a Socratic
fashion, that her list needs to be tested against even the most secure of
our intuitions in order to reach a type of reflective equilibrium for
political purposes (2001, p. 77).
Responding to this claim, I argue that users of the capability approach
have to engage in a more dialogical process, sensitive to the claims of
different peoples in order to enrich the perspective of this framework. This
type of qualitative research has a lot to offer because the capability
approach yields a form of universalism that retains sensitivity to pluralism.
The articulation of the capabilities and the desires by those who are
subaltern2 creates the kind of new knowledge and values that are crucial
for a more democratic understanding of universalism. With this in mind, in
this paper3 I will briefly go through Nussbaums list of central functional
capabilities, focusing on the question of agency. I will do this through the
words of women living in squatter-settlement gecekondu4 quarters of
Istanbul, Turkey who have migrated from rural areas and who experience
varying degrees of poverty and subalternity. I will also discuss the
(im)possibility of the separation of the political and the non-political
realms with respect to religion and family for these women.
But before bringing in dialogue Nussbaums list of central human
capabilities with these Gecekondu women, a few words about the
context of fieldwork have to be said. Turkey has always been in between
two worlds: the developed and developing world, the eastern and
western, and the Muslim and secular worlds. Turkey, however, is not
only in between two worlds, it also inhabits these two worlds in its
boundaries. Specifically, there is vast disparity among different regions and
among the population living in big cities. The squatter settlements
(gecekondus) of Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey, are good places to
spot this disparity.
The present analysis concentrates on women living in one of these
squatter settlements, Ihlamurkuyu-Umraniye. All but one (a 25-year-old
woman whose parents had migrated to Istanbul) of the 22 women
interviewed and Nalan Turkeli, the author of two published diaries
(Turkeli, 2000a, 2000b) that are used as primary sources in this paper,
were migrants. In this specific case, the women5 shared the subalternity of
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

being women in a patriarchal Muslim society and being rural migrants in

the big cities (Erman, 2001, p. 121). Women who migrate to Istanbul are
mostly interpreted as associational migration because most of them come
to the city, following the male head of their households, either husbands
or fathers. These women are deeply embedded in societal relations. They
raise children, do the housework, and constitute the support systems for
elders and disabled persons. Women who used to work in the fields in the
rural areas are asked to stay at home when they come to the cities.
However, in case of material hardship, husbands have to accept that their
wives need to work outside of homes.
Using in-depth interview methods, my goal has been to act as a
mediator for the Gecekondu women to speak about their lives, their
capabilities and their wishes. In doing so, I aim to bring Nussbaums list
into dialogue with the words of this subaltern group, focusing on the
question of autonomous agency. I also aim to discuss the difficulties of the
separation of the political and non-political conceptions of the good.

Central human capabilities in womens terms

Capabilities in relational terms
Both Sen and Nussbaums versions of the capability approach underline
the importance of taking the perspective of ethical individualism6.
Nussbaum underlines the separateness of each person as a basic fact
of human life, noting that the food given to A does not arrive in the
stomach of B (Nussbaum, 2000a, p. 62). Recognition of this separateness
is an ethical necessity for the human development approach, but one also
has to acknowledge how well-being depends heavily on other peoples
well-being. The women interviewed stated their worries about their
abilities almost always in relational terms. Their perception of well-being
and agency is constructed in relational terms.
The concept of agency is usually defined as resisting social norms.
This seemingly presupposed definition should be challenged in order to
develop a more comprehensive understanding of agency. According to
Alkire, when a valuable exercise of self-direction or practical reason has
occurred, then, in Sens terms, one can speak of agency achievement.
When this happens, Alkire deploys the term empowerment to define the
practice (2002, p. 131). Even under very restricted conditions, women can
make some changes to improve their situation. Accordingly, how and to
what extent this power is exercised depends on both a womans internal
development and the external conditions (Afsaruddin, 1999, p. 6). Young
identifies two primary meanings of empowerment: for some therapists
and service providers, empowerment means the development of indivi-
dual autonomy, self-control, and confidence; for others empowerment
refers to the development of a sense of collective influence over the social
conditions of ones life (1997, p. 89). Young prefers the second meaning
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since it includes both personal empowerment and collective empower-

ment, and suggests that the latter is a condition of the former (1997, p. 89).
In the Turkish context, the second meaning takes special significance since
the fieldwork among Gecekondu women revealed that they rather
conceived autonomy and agency in relational terms and not in terms of
the autonomy of the individual.
In what follows I will show how this relationality was central to the
ways my informants defined their agency as they were elaborating on their
existing, stated and desired capabilities. By reviewing each item on
Nussbaums list, mostly by focusing on the capabilities of senses,
imagination and thought; emotions and affiliation, I will explore these
capabilities in connection with the concept of autonomous agency.
However as I will document in the cases of other capabilities, surprisingly
even in the case of bodily integrity it is very hard to conceptualize these
women as isolated selves.

Life and bodily health

The first item in Nussbaums (2001, pp. 7880) list of capabilities is life:
Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length, not dying
prematurely, or before ones life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
The physical survival is one of the preconditions for any individual action
in any culture. In my fieldwork, women talked about their miscarriages
and children who died at infancy as examples of how life came before
everything else. The loss of children became the common expression of
this shared, universally agreed capability.
Closely linked to this first item is the second capability of bodily
health: Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to
be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter (Nussbaum, 2001,
p.78). My informants repeatedly asserted the importance of being
adequately nourished7 and having adequate shelter. When they talked
about bodily well-being they explained it in terms of being strong and
healthy enough to continue [their] life; to give birth to [their]
children; to look after [their] children and themselves; and to be able
to work. However, diseases are in every household and it is no longer
an exception but a fact of daily life. The health situation becomes more
problematic when one of the family members has an illness of a type that
requires life-long treatment such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.
Unfortunately the unhealthy living conditions and the frequency of
mistreatment, which may cause life-long illness, are not few. The worst
part of these stories that were told is the difficulty, in fact the impossibility,
of breaking these vicious circles.
Reproductive health was seen as very important. Women repeatedly
talked about miscarriages during pregnancy and the unhealthy conditions
of sexual life in their marriage. The intensity of their concerns showed the
importance of these bodily health capabilities in the lives of women. The
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

health of the mother directly affects the health of the baby. Hence, the
consequences of malnutrition for women extended not only to their
household activities and childcare, but also to the birth weight of their
infants. Malnutrition during pregnancies and marriages with closed
relatives impacted on the health of unborn children and created
intergenerational vicious circles (Aoyama, 1999, pp. xiixiv).
Family was an important institution in preventing the severe
consequences of poverty. Yet in the growing difficulties of the con-
temporary context, even within the nuclear family, parents could not
manage to take care of the health problems of their children. Their daily
survival strategy was to achieve minimum physical well-being by
maintaining the basic goods. These women were doing whatever they
could to save money in order to provide food and clean water for their
family: buying cheap old bread, to create new recipes and manage to
cook with the things they had at home, to collect the vegetables that are
left over in marketplaces, using illegally acquired electricity and to
sterilize water for their children. Sometimes poverty could be so severe
that babies died because of malnutrition and the mother would only
express her inability by stating how she could not afford the necessary
food: the baby was destined to die (Bora, in Erdogan, 2002, p. 68).

Bodily integrity
The third central human capability of Nussbaums list is that of bodily
integrity: being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure
against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence;
having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of
reproduction (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 78). This capability engages with the
different levels of constraints in the lives of women. Some of the
interviewees had internalized these constraints. Getting permission from
the husband or to move in such a way that you do not make a noise so
that the mother-in-law does not oppose were considered as freedom.
Moving freely from place to place raised, however, the following
questions: When? Where? How? With whom? Moving freely was limited
even during the daytime. Sitting in front of the house, visiting other
neighbours, taking the children to school and then picking them up,
buying daily needs were the only available routes of freedom for most of
them. For some, particularly the older ones, the limitations also stemmed
from financial constraints. Furthermore, some were uncomfortable about
moving from one place to another in Istanbul because they did not know
how to read and write.
To have the control of ones body, to secure ones body from sexual
and physical violence, was crucial. Even though sexuality and domestic
violence were the two issues, which were mostly unexpressed, domestic
violence was described by many as one of the main problems almost all
women face[d]. Such observations were almost always followed by the
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point indicating not that I face[d] this problem. Expressing sexual and
physical violence as a general problem by avoiding the discussion of
personal experience revealed how it was harder to have this capability,
since the body of the woman was both too private and too public. It was
too private because most found it very difficult to talk about what went on
behind the walls of the bedroom or the home. Moreover, the womens
body was always something to be hidden and something not to be talked
about or displayed. The womans body was also too public because it
represented the honour of her family. Fathers, brothers, husbands and the
families of the husbands, even the people from the same or close villages,
were all responsible for safeguarding the bodies of their daughters, brides,
wives. Once women were married, the ownership of their bodies passed
on to the husbands; any kind of insulting behaviour against them was
considered against the husbands more than themselves. The chastity of
women was crucial for all male members of families. The emphasis on
preservation of virginity until marriage was the primary proof of this. The
disgrace of pre-marital relations with a man or suspected extra-marital
affairs could provoke honour killing8 or forced suicidal acts.
From a more general perspective, the main problem in Turkey has been
how to exercise the existing rights that are already part of the legal system
(Arn, 1997). Legal rights by themselves are not sufficient to enable women
to enjoy full human rights in their everyday lives. It has to be accepted that
no law or structural reform alone can change the lifestyle and behaviour of
human beings. Nussbaums suggestion of incorporating the capabilities list
into each states constitution as an object of an overlapping consensus is
therefore not a guarantee for its implementation. The Turkish case was an
evocative proof of this impossibility. Phillips also makes a similar point
when she discusses the inability of the women-friendly constitution of India
to provide equal capabilities for women. She ends up arguing that
Nussbaum is too canny to dismiss the evidence of actual choices or the
limitations imposed by local conditions (Phillips, 2002, p. 403).
Nussbaum states that having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and
for choice in matters of reproduction (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 78) is part of the
capability of bodily integrity. Opportunities for sexual satisfaction were a
novelty for the women I interviewed. They rarely talked about it directly. I
could decipher more on sexuality and domestic violence indirectly from
their general proclamations about the joys of married life. I concluded that if
they were lucky they could enjoy intercourse with their husband. But
expanding their opportunities for sexual satisfaction was out of the question.
There is a social taboo forbidding discussion of sexual pleasure.
Sexual gratification is considered a disgrace or shame. Thus sexuality was
expressed mostly in relation to reproduction. The interviews showed that
the girl who got married became a woman, and womanhood was
expected to be followed by motherhood. Interestingly, after that, having
children became the real source of relative freedom and empowerment. I
will elaborate on this surprising finding shortly. Motherhood was seen as
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

the most important duty of a woman and to lack this capability was to,
literarily, be entrapped in a disabled body. So the choice in matters of
reproduction was understood more in terms of the number of the children
rather than whether to have or not to have them.
Induced abortions have been used as family planning method for
years, even though it is illegal and carries a high risk.9 All of my informants
had unfortunate stories of miscarriages due to their living conditions.
Inadequate access to contraception and abortion limits the reproductive
freedom and the control women had over their bodies. There were also
the frequently expressed religious beliefs that it was Allahs decision;
Who gives life takes it away, too and the baby is born with her rzk [i.e.,
ones daily food sustenance provided by God].

Senses, imagination and thought

The fourth central human capability is that of senses, imagination and
thought. In my fieldwork, the limited education (and, in some cases, the
total lack of education) emerged as a very important barrier from this
perspective. The capability to be cultivated by an adequate education
did not exist for most of the women. They all acknowledged the
importance of education and they all emphasized how they wished their
children, both sons and daughters, to acquire a good education. Of the 22
women interviewed, only one had graduated from high school. Fourteen
women were primary school graduates. Seven of them had received no
education during their childhood, but four of these seven women had
gone to adult courses and acquired basic literacy recently. Interestingly, in
the families of those who went to primary school and who could not
continue their education due to harsh economic conditions, brothers
usually managed to go on to junior high.

Crowded selves: we instead of I

The role of care in the formation of human capabilities and in human
development is fundamental. Without care and nurturing, children cannot
develop capabilities. However, there may be conflicting capabilities of
children and parents. Particularly in cases of severe poverty, providing
capabilities for children may result capability deprivation for the mothers.
As a result, the care-giving role of mothers, which can also be
conceptualized as a human capability, may end up undermining other
These women had crowded selves. They did not talk about
themselves in terms of the first person singular I. They did not separate
their needs and desires from those of their families. They articulated their
selfhood as their fathers daughters, brothers sisters, husbands wives,
families brides and mothers of children. Among these relations, being
mothers, giving birth to children, emerged as the most important source of
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identification. By becoming mothers, they became subjects, agents.

Housework, such as cleaning, cooking and laundry is routinized work.
For some women, knitting, lacework or other types of handwork were
some of the creative activities they did. Compared with them, the most
creational activity is raising their children. The way the women dreamt
about the future lives of their children often made me wonder: is it
possible to think of raising children as an expression of self-fulfilment?
All the interviewees devoted their capabilities to enhancing their
childrens capabilities. Their existence, their self-expression and
their future plans were always expressed for and through their children.
Their self-actualization and life-satisfaction took place mostly through their
children. The way they expressed their lives and feelings demonstrated
that to have and to raise children was a life-long project. They did not
become mothers consciously as a way of creation or self-expression, but
children became their reason for being. Being at home and looking after
the children was, thus, preferable to a situation where one had to work as
a cleaning woman.
I should note that maternal altruism (Whitehead, 1981) did not
necessarily entail negative consequences for women. In fact, this was not
only a practice of altruism: their status in society depended on their
children, they were proud to have their children achieve higher education,
to have jobs, and so forth. Furthermore, children also provide a venue for
socializing for these Gecekondu women. They entered the public space
(hospitals, schools, etc.) as the primary care-givers of their children. They
were entitled to these public spaces since they were entitled to a
legitimate right and power over their children. Although they were
worried about the future of their children, still children continued to be
their joy of life and, more practically, key to expanding their capabilities
in terms of decision-making.

Challenging the liberal understanding of religion

The capability of senses, imagination and thought in Nussbaums list also
includes freedom of religious exercise (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 79). All the
Gecekondu women interviewed were Muslims.10 Religion, beside the
cultural constraints, functioned as rationalizing tool for the status of
poverty with a fatalistic view (Okin, 2003, pp. 303, 312313). Women of
Ihlamurkuyu did not complain about their living conditions as they did
not wish to offend Allah. The meaning of life was defined through their
belief in Allah. To the counter-factual question what they would do if they
won the lottery, even though most lived under severe poverty, most of
them gave the answer they would not want the money that came from the
lottery. That kind of money was not earned by work, therefore it was
forbidden by the religionharam.
These women never questioned the foundations of Islam or brought
up making actual choices in terms of religious belief. Religion is effective
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

in the socialization and religious affiliation for the urban migrant to be part
of her community. Every woman is born into the religion of the family. The
liberal understanding of religion as voluntary association could thus not
be applied to the way religion was experienced by these women. Most
families could only descend their religion (and their values) as they lacked
land, house or any kind of material sources.11 All my informants were
bound to Islam, and no one joined voluntarilyas most people do not
with regard to religion around the world.12 Interestingly, unlike her
discussion of the family, Nussbaum challenges neither how religion is
conceptualized within the private sphere nor the argument that religion is
a voluntary association. Consequently, she does not recognize the role
religion may play in the formation of a political conception of the good.13
In the final section of the paper I will discuss how this is problematic.

Emotions and affiliation: love, marriage and family

The next capability on the list is emotions, being able to have attachments to
things and people outside ourselves. The women interviewed were at ease
when expressing openly their emotions. Showing their feelings, loving and
grieving were socially acceptable, especially when this involved their parents
or their children. However, the expression of love towards their husband
was not approved much in the societal relations of which they were part.
Love and marriage are the two terms that cannot be thought separately for
a western audience. However, in these cases when my informants talked
about how they got married and their subsequent married life, neither
falling in love nor love were not part of their lexicons.
This is not to conclude that they did not love their husbands, but the
ways in which they expressed their feelings unravelled different under-
standing of love and marriage relations. First, for most, love occurred
after marriage; one did not get married with the man she loved, but rather
one came to love the man to whom one got married. And secondly, the
expression of romantic love was generally something shameful and
disgraceful. Expressing love in words was sort of inappropriate.
Only one of the women, who was relatively more free in her life and
in the way she expressed herself, mentioned that love [wa]s built in time
during her marriage. In fact, in one way or another, almost all these
women had feelings for their husbands since by getting married and
forming families they were forming a united front against the harsh
conditions of life. Not very different from the idea that one could not
choose the family into which one was born, the idea of choice before
marriage was irrelevant for almost all of themwith the exception of
the one who eloped.
The women did not express their love towards their husbands during
the interviews but one could notice that there was a very strong bondage:
fidelity and respect towards their husbands. The husband was regarded as
the sole responsible person in the family for providing income, even in
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cases where the wife earned more. The husbands were the fathers of
their children. Becoming parents established a life-long tie between the
wife and the husband. Furthermore, by being married, women acquired
their own families and became a part of the web of social relations, which
would be seriously changed without husbands by their sides considering
the norms of the society, particularly honour.

Practical reason
As crucial as affiliation is the central human capability of practical reason:
being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical
reflection about the planning of ones own life (Nussabum, 2001, p. 79).
The Gecekondu women were capable of planning the lives of their
children more than they were able to plan their own. In a way, each
generation seemed to have more capability to plan the lives of the next
generation than their own. The parents planned the lives of their children.
They, or elders, arranged their marriage as a prerequisite of social
adulthood (Tekce, 2002, p. 7). The idea that each human being is a maker
of a life plan (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 284), an empowered autonomous agent,
did not fare correct especially when these women were young.
Let us consider the tradition of arranged marriages. The civil marriage
ceremony has been compulsory in Turkey since 1926 and the open
consent and expression of that consent has been required since then. In
my fieldwork, apart from the one who eloped, the women were all
married through arranged marriages by their families. Some of the
marriages were at a very young age, as early as 15: I could not live my
childhood, I got married at 15. The woman who got engaged at 15 and
married at 17 by arranged marriage14 to a distant relative stated: I had
never seen him before. They just directly came and asked. It happened I
hadnt seen him anywhere. I did not know him.
The way she described her marriageit happened in fact is
crucial for understanding how marriages took place for these women.
They are not the ones who acted (Tekce, 2002, p. 21). Although they all
referred to their marriages as arranged, depending on the kind of families,
there were still cases of family arranged marriages where bride and groom
had the right to agree or disagree.
Marriage among relatives was also a very common practice, such as
marrying cousins. This further restricted the lives of the new migrant
brides because they were more tightly bound by their families. The
arranged marriages are usually among the children of families from the
same or neighbouring villages and most often among relatives. Only seven
of the 22 women interviewed married a person who had no relational ties
to the family. In fact, nine of them got married to their cousins and an
additional six were married to a relative.
Their experience of arranged marriages showed that the tradition
seriously threatened the autonomy of women. Nevertheless arranged
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

marriages were accepted as a fact of life, similar to how a person could not
choose the family into which she was born. Marriage was accepted to be
arranged both for men and women. To what extent women exercised their
empowerment during the marriage was another matter. Once again,
however, this is not to conclude that these women lacked agency. Even
under very restricted conditions, the women tried to make some changes
to improve their situations.

Being able to live with and toward others

The seventh central human capability of Nussbaums list is that of being
able to live with and toward others, to recognise and show concern for
other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction
(Nussabum, 2001, p. 79). Nussbaum states that she endorses an
Aristotelian/Marxist view that full human functioning requires affiliation
and reciprocity. Yet, she acknowledges that she confronts the question
posed by the presence of the family which limits the capabilities of woman
because of the roles the family impose on them (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 244).
This was crucial for my informants. The family had the power both to
promote and limit the capabilities, even the basic ones such as life.
As noted previously, the women did not express themselves usually as
I. They first defined themselves in relational terms and also usually talked
as we, referring generally to their family. When they got married, they
entered a new web of relations. Even in the cases where they got married
to a relative, the uncle now became the father in law.
Other important affiliations were relatives and families from the same
or close villages. They were important sources of belonging, particularly in
this huge, totally strange, city of Istanbul. Nevertheless this also limited
their lives, what they were able to do or not. The behaviours and actions of
the women were controlled by the neighbourhood. So the price of not
feeling alone or totally strange was high. The women could have
more restricted lives than they previously had in their villages but because
this [wa]s Istanbul, one ha[d] to be more careful.
When I elaborate on the emotional capabilityparticularly the
capability to show concern for othersthe Gecekondu women
developed this capability to its full potential in the Aristotelian sense.
This was to the extent that it endangered their other capabilities.
Nevertheless, for the women of Ihlamurkuyu, showing concern for their
families was the ultimate meaning of life along with religion. Mutual
interdependence within the family, even within the extended family, was
observable as the collectivist cultural characteristic was marked by
subordination of the interests of the individual to the interests of the
family (Sunar and Fisek, 2005, p. 174).
The second part of the capability of affiliation is having the social
bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a
dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails
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provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual

orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin (Nussbaum, 2001,
p. 79). Sexual discrimination was definitely stark in my case. They do not
consider us as human species was an important statement. To develop
the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation for women was crucial.
Achieving this, however, required a profound social change that takes

Other species and play

The eighth central human capability is that of being able to live with
concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature
(Nussabum, 2001, p. 80). Most of the women had worked in the fields and
had been shepherds. Thus these relations were more in terms of their
needs and as part of their village life. Okin (2003, p. 311) criticizes
Nussbaum for arguing that many people value nature as a more essential
resource for human life than a spiritual value. These women who had
difficulty in feeding their children did not particularly think about this
capability. The way they saw animals had more to do with getting benefits
from them, such as getting milk and meat. This was a totally different sort
of relation with animals due to the village life of their childhood. The
village life and villagers themselves had different relations with nature and
animals (Berger, 1979).
When it comes to play, to laugh, to enjoy recreational activities,
these women did have a limited chance to play when they were themselves
children. Even if they played during their childhood, it did not last long.
With no chance to experience their youth, they found themselves in
marriages and then had their first babies soon after. It was noted that if a
woman played with her kids on the street, it is interpreted as she [wa]s
crazy: How come that a grown up woman would play with children?
(Turkeli, 2000a, p. 22). So playing in their status, when they were
mothers, wives and of course brides, could only be interpreted as acting
beyond reason. To be able to laugh was also something that could
endanger the purity of womans honour and therefore, expression of
amusement was mostly limited to a smile rather than a laugh.

Control over ones environment: political and material

The last central human capability is of control over ones environment,
political and material. Voting was a citizens duty they all practiced. This
did not mean that they had participated in politics. Most women noted
that the main problems in Turkey were poverty, inflation, and difficulty of
earning a living. When it came to more local issues, they talked about
uncollected rubbish, insufficient roads, water shortage, no parks for the
kids to play and the schools. The way they saw politics was something
alien to their own lives. For all, politics and political decisions took place
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

among higher income groups. Except for two women, they all thought
there was no chance of improving their situation, but also more generally
improving Turkeys situation: Whoever becomes prime minister, we carry
the burden in our backs the rich would support the rich and the poor
cannot support the other poor. Why? They dont have the ability.
Nussbaum lists the material capability as being able to hold property,
having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; and
being able to work as a human being (Nussabum, 2001, p. 80). There is
no legal discrimination against womens opportunities for acquiring
property. According to law, the ownership of properties that are bought
during marriage is shared between both spouses. This is crucial
considering the large percentage of housewives in the female population.
Yet still, the law does not guarantee the practice and actual implementa-
tion of these capabilities.
The interviewees lacked the capability to benefit from the right to
seek employment on an equal basis with others and being able to work as
a human being. They did state their desire to have better employment
conditions, if not for themselves, for their husbands and their children. All
the women were housewives but some also had to earn money. The
expected relation that those who worked would have more option, more
capability was not necessarily true. Those who worked did not choose to
work. Choosing not to work in their case meant there was an option,
more freedom for these women.15
The limited job option was fundamental for their desire not to
work. It is mostly in domestic spheres that migrant women work, it is the
homes of others that they clean, the children of others that they look after,
or even if they work in a firm it is the tea of others they prepare. They may
also do lacework or piecework in their homes or work in factories, mostly
on a small-scale production of textile ateliers. The defined jobs usually lack
any social security and retirement fund, let alone any satisfaction, creation
or self-actualization. The related double-day problem also played an
important role in their preference not to work outside their home. In my
case study, I could see that these women still were on the whole the
responsible person of the household. Being at home and looking after the
children was preferable to a situation where one had to work as a
cleaner or a textile worker and continue to be the main responsible
person for the household.

Political/non-political: how is the conception of the good

As stated in the introduction, Nussbaum claims that she sets the central
human capabilities in the context of a type of political liberalism that
makes them specifically political goals. She argues that the capabilities
approach is founded on the idea that basic capabilities are independent
of particular metaphysical, religious and ethical doctrines, and therefore
Pinar Uyan-Semerci

it is compatible with Rawlsian political liberalism. However, Rawls

political conception of good depends on the idea that there can be a
real distinction between the political and the non-political, and that
people are capable of making that separation. Rawls assumes that
citizens always have two views, a comprehensive and a political view
(1993, p. 140).
The Gecekondu women I interviewed did not have two separate views
according to which they lived their lives: a comprehensive and a political
conception of the good. The conception of the good, which is argued to be
formed outside the political sphere, played a crucial role in their choices
and in their political choices too. Religion and family have become the
classical examples of the institutions that are in the private, so-called non-
political, sphere. The lives of these women were proof of how family and
religion cannot be outside the scope of any analysis on the capabilities
approach.16 The already stated separation of political and non-political
when considering the womens words would not be able to go beyond
describing them as non-political human beings. Their lives seemed to
take place outside the political realm, except for the regular voting
practice. However, the boundaries of politics should include these
everyday struggles the women lived. This means that we need to redefine
the boundaries of politics to include the subalterns who are left outside
the institutionalized politics. Is it not one of the primary objectives of the
capability approach to promote the capabilities of the subalterns?
Considering this objective, the separation of the political and non-
political realms, crucial for reaching overlapping consensus, becomes
almost impossible. Nussbaum is aware of the fact that, in order for citizens
to have larger capability sets, one needs a wider17 understanding of the
political than political liberalism allows. States must be concerned with all
the capabilities, such as the capability to play (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 90). Her
approach cannot be put within the limits of Rawlsian political liberalism.
Nussbaum argues that the list has political purposes. Individuals may
neglect an item on the list but this does not impede others from pursuing
it. This makes the list partial rather than a comprehensive conception of
the good (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 96). She therefore suggests to [seek] a
conception by which people of differing comprehensive views can agree to
live together in a political community (2001, p. 180). This is her
underlying reason for preferring political liberalism to comprehensive
liberalism. But at the same time she states that no state can allow its
citizens to search for the ultimate meaning of life in any way they wish,
particularly when that way involves harm to others. Acknowledging this,
Nussbaum states the following: My own view is that health and bodily
integrity are so important in relation to all the other capabilities that they
are legitimate areas of interference with choice up to a point, although
there will rightly be disagreement about where that point is in each area
(2001, p. 95). She further notes that some of her points in the list do not
fall within the scope of basic political principles, and should be left to the
Nussbaums List of Capabilities

democratic process of each nation (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 95). However,

the so-called liberal countries would have serious problems with
deliberation when incorporating such a list in their constitutions. And
when it comes to developing countries, it is really difficult to understand
how this list can be incorporated within a democratic process of each
nation, when even basic institutional structures do not exist.

In order to evaluate and develop the capability framework further, I argue
that users of the capability approach have to take seriously into
consideration the experiences and thoughts of the subalterns.
Acknowledging the difficulties of allowing for the voices of the subalterns
to be heard, the need for critical scrutiny with unrestrained information is
crucial. Particularly for women who live in poverty, one discovers that they
do not see themselves as separate individuals from their families. They try
to develop their own capabilities and their families capabilities to get
adequate nutrition, safe and clean water, better medical services, and
education. Their own words are about what they are capable of doing or
being. The desire to secure bodily health is evidently common.
Nussbaums capabilities list is a helpful tool as long as it is open to
criticisms and is deployed as a tool for dialogue. This should be the kind of
dialogue whose premises can be reconsidered in each particular study, as I
have tried to show in this paper. Thus the Turkish case, and in particular
the migrant women living in the gecekondus in Umraniye-Ihlamurkuyu,
shows that incorporation of this list, or any other capabilities list, to the
legal system is not a sufficient condition for the capabilities to be
promoted. It is important to have a list of basic capabilities in the
constitution but the promotion of these depends on many other
conditions, such as education and economic equality, which requires
structural changes rather than constitutional amendments.
The idea of a separation between the political and the non-political
realms undermines and challenges the basic premise of the capabilities
approach: it contends that there is no possibility of freedom if certain
capabilities are not developed in the first place (Sen, 1999). Since what
is seen as non-political is often the reason that prevents the expansion
of capabilities, this separation hampers the possibilities for realizing the
objective of the capability approach. Students and users of the
capabilities approach should take into consideration these particularities
in order to explore fruitfully the type of political system that is needed
in order to realize the objective of the approach. To begin this process
the capabilities approach needs a more encompassing understanding of
politics that goes beyond the narrow definition of politics stated in
political liberalism. It needs a political philosophy that is able to identify
the complex relationship between individual freedom and modern state
Pinar Uyan-Semerci

The author acknowledges the support of the Turkish Academy of Sciences
(TU BA-BDBP) and would like to express her sincere gratitude to her Ph.D.
advisers, Prof. Dr Ilkay Sunar and Prof. Dr Mine Eder, to Nalan Turkeli,
Kadriye and to all the women of Umraniye-Ihlamurkuyu who participated
the research. This paper is a revised version of the paper presented at the
5th International Capability Conference Knowledge and Public Action:
Education, Responsibility, Collective Agency, Equity, Paris, UNESCO, 11
14 September 2005. The author also would like to thank Ayten Gundogdu,
zlem Altan, the editors of this special issue and the two
Elif T. Turnalar, O
anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions and comments.

1 Rawls asks the question how is it possible there to exist over time a just and stable
society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by reasonable
religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines? (1993, p. 47). He states that the only
way to overcome this problem is an overlapping consensus of reasonable
comprehensive doctrines (1993, p. xviii). Rawls advocates political liberalism: for
political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive
doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework
of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime. He suggests that
comprehensive doctrines spring from the background culture of society; they are not
political, but rather religious, philosophical, or moral. They are comprehensive in
that they claim the whole truth, which is a transcendental truth beyond the political
2 The name subaltern has been derived from Gramscis usage in Prison Notebooks,
where he argues that wherever there is history, there is class, and that the essence of
the history is the struggle between the elite, dominant, or hegemonic class and the
subaltern (Guha and Spivak, 1988, p. vi). The word subaltern or of inferior rank
cannot be understood except as one of the constitutive terms in a binary relationship of
which the other is dominant, for subaltern groups are always subject to the activity of
ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up (Guha, in Guha and Spivak, 1988,
p. 35). It is beyond the limits of this paper to discuss the methodological debates on
subaltern studies and the reasons for choosing this particular subaltern group.
3 This paper is based on the research that I have done for my Ph.D. thesis, A Search for
Universalism: Reconsidering the Capability Approach in Turkey (Department of
Political Science and International Relations Bogazici University, Turkey, 2005), where I
examined the conceptual framework of the capability approach, both Sens and
Nussbaums work, with the findings of my field research in Turkey.
4 Gecekondu is the Turkish name given to these squatter settlement areas. It literarily
means settled overnight by the village migrants on an unoccupied land without a legal
permit, similar to favellas of Brazil. In Istanbul, it is almost impossible to find a quarter
that only consists of typical gecekondu buildings which are simple huts. The buildings
have been turning into three or four floor apartment squatter houses, yet still we can
observe similarities with the old gecekondu settlements as they usually do not provide
better living conditions.
5 I have no intention to argue that woman is an essential category. I refer to
womanhood as a social fact of existing social conditions. What characterizes women as
a group is their gender sociologically, not necessarily biologically, defined. It should
also be noted that mens capabilities are equally under serious threat, particularly due
to the frustration of no longer being the breadwinner of their families. Studying their

Nussbaums List of Capabilities
well-being from the capability perspective and questioning how they act and how they
define their agency with respect to their families would be of high relevance. However,
for the purpose of this study, I have focused on women.
6 By making the individual the basic unit of political thought, the capability approach is
an ethically (Robeyns, 2003) or normatively (Pogge, 2002), although not ontologically,
individualistic theory. Both Sen and Nussbaum consider the self as socially constituted
(Alexander, 2003, p. 16), but each individual human being remains, however, the unit
of moral concern.
7 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the in-depth interviews that have been
carried out in Ihlamurkuyu-Umraniye and all the translations are done by the author.
8 An honour killing is defined as the murder of a woman by the members of her family
for her alleged immoral behaviour.
9 In Turkey there is no obligatory birth control or sterilization. The spousal consent (if
the person is married) and the persons own consent are required for sterilization.
Since 1983, abortion is legal until the end of the 10th week of pregnancy with the
consent of the pregnant women. After the 10th week, abortion is permitted if necessary
for the mothers health or if the foetus is impaired (The New Legal Status of Women in
Turkey, 2002, p. 45).
10 Four of the women were Alevis and the rest were Sunnis. The Sunnis and the Alevis are
Islamic sects in Turkey.
11 Locke (1689) writes in his Letter of Toleration (one of the basic texts regarding the
liberal understanding of religion) the following: Nobody is born a member of any
church; otherwise the religion of parents would descend unto children by the same
right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and everyone would hold his faith by the
same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.
However, what Locke finds so absurd is, in fact, the reality. Particularly for those who
lack the land, they can only descend their religion to their children.
12 Nevertheless, admitting the particularity of the Turkish case, it is also important to note
that I do not argue this is something essential to Islam as a religion. As Galston notes
the same issue in the US context: There are, to begin with, entrance problems, for
example, the fact that we are born into certain groups to which we do not choose to
belongan experience that can be restrictive as well as empowering and that in any
event does not conform to the classic model of voluntary association (2002, pp. 122
123) To scrutinize the United States from this perspective will be fruitful as Nussbaum
gives the United States as an exemplary case.
13 Nussbaum asks for an impossible synthesis of a respect for the intrinsic value of
religious capabilities and of religious women and men as choosers of a way of life (a
basic commitment of political liberalism), and of a guarantee for the full range of the
human capabilities that are sometimes at risk for women in traditional religious
cultures (2001, p. 188). Okin also criticizes Nussbaum for giving too much emphasis
to religion (2003, p. 297).
14 The Turkish word for arranged marriage is Gorucu usulu, derived from the verb to see
(gormek), and refers generically to the method of being married by having the
prospective bride seen by relatives of the prospective groom (Tekce, 2002).
15 Similar argument can be found in Williams where she argues that the option not to
work outside of the home is a luxury that historically has been denied to black women
(2000, p. 167), which is in contrast to white feminist imagery of the family that is
represented as a key source of womens disempowerment.
16 Feminists have eroded the boundaries of the family with the claim that private is
political. Nevertheless religion still remains as a less challenged realm within the
private sphere. The power relations within a religion or any cultural value system ought
to be questioned.
17 Nussbaum also shows in her concrete cases that it is very difficult to separate the
political from the non-political (2001, pp. 227230). Nussbaum is against the idea of
leaving any institution outside scrutiny by claiming that it is private (2001, p. 245).

Pinar Uyan-Semerci

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