Critics argue that new legislation relating to personal status infringes on women’s rights
ISTANBUL—Government critics and activists in Turkey argue that new laws related to marriage threaten secularism and women’s rights.
A controversial bill passed on October 18 officially recognizes marriage ceremonies conducted by a mufti, an Islamic legal expert and state official, as valid. Imams, who officiate most religious weddings in Turkey, are not recognized under the bill.
“[President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] has fully politicized religion […] and this is another step,” women’s rights activist and researcher Pınar İlkkaracan told the Media Line.
The majority of marriages in Turkey entail both a religious and civil ceremony, though some couples opt for only the former which is not legally binding.
Many secularists fear muftis will be more likely to officiate polygamous or child marriages—both common albeit illegal in Turkey—but supporters say the concern is unwarranted.
“If any mufti abuses his authority and position and [officiates a child] marriage, then he’ll be committing a crime,” Meryem İlayda Atlas, a columnist for the Daily Sabah and volunteer with the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM)—both of which have a pro-government stance—told the Media Line.
Ankara defends the bill by saying that couples who want a wedding officiated only by a religious authority can now do so legally, resulting in an officially recognized marriage complete with equal rights.
President Erdoğan stated in a speech on October 13 that many pious Turks would prefer a religious official to a non-religious one. “A young girl or a boy in Anatolia would not listen to those [non-religious] officials, but they would listen to a religious preacher,” he said.
Turkish secularists, already feeling under threat from an increasingly religious government, are uncomfortable with giving religious officials power in the public sphere. For them, secularism and women’s rights go hand in hand.
“In Turkey the establishment of secularism was mainly for women’s rights,” İlkkaracan said.
The same critics are also condemning a parliamentary committee’s recently-presented report that focuses on divorce.
Officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is religious conservative and ardently pro-family, have expressed concern over a rising divorce rate in Turkey.
“They started this discourse ten years ago that ‘there’s lots of divorces, this is bad for Turkish society.’ Actually the divorce rate is incredibly low in Turkey,” İlkkaracan explained.
Critics say Ankara is trying to make divorce, a crucial tool for women to escape abusive marriages, harder. For example, the divorce report recommends allowing judges to send couples applying for divorce to a marriage counselor, putting 10-year time limits on alimony payments, and requiring proof of violence to apply for extended police protection.
On October 20, Justice Minister Abulhamit Gül announced that new regulations are in the works to require couples to go through a “reconciliation period” and enroll in a “family mediation institution” before being able to divorce.
Hande Kuday, a divorce lawyer, told the Media Line that it’s already very hard for a woman, for social and economic reasons, to decide to get a divorce. In Turkey there’s an especially severe taboo against female divorcees.
“Unfortunately our society has an entrenched perception of a divorced woman, and as education levels drop, this perception is used as a tool to establish dominance over women,” Kuday said.
“The sad reality of divorced women in Turkey is to be isolated from society, to be labelled as easily obtainable by men, to be seen as a threat by married women and to be labelled as weak because they can’t maintain a life without men.”
İlkkaracan believes it’s especially unreasonable to force a couple to get counseling when a woman decides to get a divorce to escape a violent partner. “No woman would get a divorce […] after one or two incidents of domestic violence. They do it [as a last resort], when they can’t take it anymore, and are therefore past the point of counseling,” she said.
İlkkaracan says the problem isn’t that divorce is too common or easy, but that it’s not easy enough for women who need it.
“The main problem isn’t the rate of divorce, it’s that women cannot divorce, even if they’re experiencing violence, because they don’t have the financial possibility.”
According to government statistics from 2015, only 27.5 percent of women in Turkey are employed, making most women financially dependent on their husbands.
The AKP, though lauded in 2005 for passing legislation defining sex with minors under 15 as statutory rape and approving legislation increasing jail time for this crime, has also been criticized for bills related to marriage.
In 2004 it abandoned a proposal to criminalize adultery amid a fierce public backlash. In November of last year a parliamentary proposal to pardon about 3,000 men jailed for statutory rape if they had married or agreed to marry their victims was quickly withdrawn after widespread denunciations.
Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations, European and Eurasian studies at Johns Hopkins University, says Erdoğan and the AKP have a poor recent record on women’s rights.
“[Erdoğan’s] call for women to have at least three children, his former deputy prime minister’s declaration that women shouldn’t laugh out loud in public, and the name and focus change of the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies all indicate a much bleaker picture for gender equality—not to mention LGBTQ rights—under the AKP,” Hintz wrote to the Media Line in an email.
İlkkaracan agrees. “It’s incredibly sad. It’s been 25 years of a very successful feminist movement,” she said.
“Now they’re taking everything back step by step.”