The sparrow-like woman surveyed a Dickensian scene: a hall of clerks, every one a woman, sitting at desks piled high with bulging files and books of regulations. 'Turkish men could not cope with this work,' she said.

So it often seems to prove. While some Turkish men cultivate their moustaches and sit in coffee houses, Turkey's female workers and managers have quietly become all but indispensable to the economy.

It was the sparrow lady, deep in the billing department of the Istanbul telephone company, who first alerted me to the force that was to take the country by surprise in June this year when, almost without blinking, Turkey's Muslim, conservative and patriarchal society chose a fresh-faced blonde, Tansu Ciller, to be its new prime minister.

An image of Turkish women confined to village drudgery or lives behind the veil has long been an outsider's misconception of the Orient's most Western country. But it is even more outdated now. The rapid changes overtaking the country have been felt as far away as Turkish Kurdistan, where many women have become guerrillas and even local mountain commanders.

In the cosier atmosphere of the Istanbul headquarters of Turkish Airlines, no lesser advances have been made. The deputy general manager and the head of finance are both women, as are 12 of 13 head office accounting managers.

'In 1977, the only job I got offered was as a secretary,' said the finance director, Ilknur Ezgi. 'Now it makes no difference if you are a woman.'

Women are now often brokers in the stock exchange or treasury chiefs of Istanbul finance houses, and sometimes constitute more than half of bank employees. They are also dominant in teaching, and the proportion of women doctors and medical professors is higher than in the United States.

'Practically half of all professors in some departments are women. That doesn't exist in Europe,' said Sirin Tekeli, a bright political scientist and pillar of Turkey's feminist movement, who runs the Istanbul Women's Library. .

The feminist debate is not so much about glass ceilings preventing educated women rising to the top, but more about how to make uneducated women aware that they do not have to serve passively at the bottom, while getting beaten up into the bargain.

Many reasons are given for educated women's ability to compete successfully for good jobs. Factors cited are the undermining of country prejudices by rapid urbanisation, the need for two salaries for a household to survive in Istanbul, the low cost of domestic help and the availability of cuddling grandmothers. Some say that men prefer to work with women of the same class than men from a different one. Others that women have always done the backbone of the work anyway, in the fields or in the home. Importantly, women have so far rarely sought the top jobs, which are seen as the preserve of men.

The fact that men do not perceive women as threatening or demanding may also be connected with the country's back-to-front history of feminism. Women's rights were granted overnight in 1926 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who chose to cast his new republic in a Western mould by adopting the Swiss civil code. The result was that a feminist movement only got under way in the Eighties.

The first feminist successes came three years ago with the cancellation of a penal code article that gave reduced sentences for the rape of prostitutes. Another cobweb swept out last year was the cancellation of the theoretical need for a husband's permission for a woman to work outside the home.

Feminists then collected 100,000 signatures to try to force parliament to abolish male financial advantages that discourage women from seeking divorce, and change the father's legal status as head of the family. Schoolbooks, for instance, still teach that the wife is only the helper and friend of her husband, with a duty is to look after the children and keep house.

'It's a country of extremes. We have a woman prime minister, but we are still talking about girls who think they have lost their virginity if they have just been kissed,' said Leyla Alaton, a prominent women's magazine commentator and a businesswoman who has struck out on her own with a public relations company. As is often the case in richer districts of Istanbul, where bank managers are often women and the men usually tea- boys and security guards, the only man in sight at Ms Alaton's premises was a humble driver, jocularly referred to as the 'sultan'.

Ms Alaton is the daughter of a well- known businessman. Turkish women's involvement in business is often built on inherited wealth. But it is by no means marginal. The top taxpayer among the 10 million people of Istanbul is an Armenian madam with a brothels-to-hotels property empire. The mainstream business sector is led by Guler Sabanci, the tough, stocky, deep-voiced chief of the family tyre business, Sabanci, Turkey's second biggest private company.

Like Mrs Ciller - who carefully keeps up a fiction that 'in my family, my husband is the boss' - Ms Sabanci is no feminist, laughingly pronouncing that the best maternity leave is the shortest one. But she says she is working to make women's equality a reality in society, not just in law, and declares herself dissatisfied that only 10 per cent of her managers and 25 per cent of her workers are women.

'It is still a man's world. But it's not the men who don't want the women. It's the women who don't want their jobs,' she said. 'We never needed to have a special policy. Women are paid and treated equally. And compared with other tyre companies in the world, we employ more women.'

The picture is not all rosy. Rural women may no longer be in the majority, but, like rural men, they still lag behind in terms of social development. Women make up a third of the student population, but only about 15 per cent of them have access to higher education in the first place, and of them only a few enter true management positions.

In 1985, one third of women were illiterate, compared with an eighth of men. Half of women were married before the age of 18, while a half found it normal that a man beats his wife. Where the all-colour pages of the Turkish press are not filled with images of scantily-clad models, their place is taken with gory pictures of battered women, lovers' suicides and multiple murders in blood feuds over virgin brides.

Much of this is because of the customs the rural people brought to the city suburbs. Such ideas have fuelled an Islamic backlash to the corruption they found there. But the cash, big city lights, glitzy television stations and an array of new ideas have made escape easier. More and more, young women are able to go out alone at night, run their own cars and rent flats.

Turkey's pro-Islamic Welfare Party has even felt obliged to try to broaden its appeal as it struggles to increase its 15 per cent share of the vote. Amid much fuss, Filiz Ergun, a young divorced dentist, was inducted into the party this year, when her only claim to fame was that she did not wear a headscarf. But last week she was at the centre of a sex scandal. Millions of television viewers watched as a fellow party member, named as Dr Ergun's lover, went on air with his wife and four children to admit the affair.

Even before this embarrassment, the party's effort to increase its vote had born little fruit as its fundamentalist wing refused to relinquish its grip on dogma. But the conservatives may not be safe. There is a new breed of Islamic feminists rising in their midst, who may soon become restive with the fact that Islam authorises polygamy and stipulates that the legal testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man.

Such women still keep in the background. The influential daughter of the Welfare Party chief declined to be interviewed. But Sirin Tekeli at the women's library noted the Islamists' increasing willingness to use feminist sources in footnotes to their articles.

'We differ from traditionalists not in analysis, but in solutions . . . . they believe in veiling and the division of buses, while we believe men should learn how to behave,' Ms Tekeli said.

The view was shared at the sleek Bosporus-side headquarters of Turk Merchant Bank. The bank's 32-year- old deputy general manager, Birgul Aksehirlioglu, said she and her contemporaries were determined that when they had children, there would be no break in their careers.

'Turkey is a Muslim country, but its people are not very Islamic. They are quite flexible. Prime Minister Ciller symbolises the fact that Turkey is now a country open to change,' she said. 'I may not be a standard Turkish woman, but there are many like me.'

(Photographs omitted)