Turk­ish mar­riage law a blow to women's rights, say ac­tivists

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Ka­reem Sha­heen and Gokce Saracoglu in Istanbul

Ac­tivists and op­po­si­tion politi­cians in Turkey have rounded on a law that al­lows Mus­lim cler­ics to con­duct civil mar­riages, de­scrib­ing it as a blow to women’s rights and sec­u­lar­ism and part of an on­go­ing ef­fort to im­pose re­li­gious val­ues on a po­larised so­ci­ety.

The law al­low­ing “mufti” mar­riages was passed by par­lia­ment and Turkey’s pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Erdoğan, then pub­lished in the coun­try’s of­fi­cial gazette on Fri­day, de­spite protests by civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists and op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers. Last month, Erdoğan de­clared the bill would be passed “whether you like it or not”.

“Women’s rights are go­ing to de­cline,” said Nazan Moroğlu, an ex­pert on gen­der law and a lec­turer at Yeditepe Univer­sity. “Ev­ery­thing that has been pushed on to women in this land has been done in the name of re­li­gion.”

Muftis are cler­ics em­pow­ered with is­su­ing re­li­gious opin­ions on mat­ters of day-to-day life. Pre­vi­ously, only state of­fi­cers in branches of the fam­ily af­fairs direc­torate were able to con­duct mar­riages.

A re­quire­ment has also been added that pro­hibits in­di­vid­u­als who car­ried out “im­moral acts” be­fore mar­riage from be­com­ing Turk­ish cit­i­zens. Many peo­ple in Turkey, a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try, con­duct re­li­gious cer­e­monies in ad­di­tion to civil mar­riages, as do Syr­ian refugees who tie the knot in the coun­try, and see it as a re­li­gious obli­ga­tion. Other Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries do not al­low civil mar­riages be­cause of re­li­gious re­stric­tions on Mus­lim women mar­ry­ing non-Mus­lim men, but of­ten recog­nise mar­riages per­formed abroad. Many cou­ples in the re­gion of­ten travel to Cyprus or Turkey to con­duct such mar­riages.

Sup­port­ers of the law point out that it does not change the re­quire­ments for a le­gal civil mar­riage. They say it does not cre­ate a loop­hole that al­lows child mar­riages or polygamy, and sim­ply makes it more con­ve­nient for cit­i­zens who are re­li­giously ob­ser­vant.

Op­po­nents con­tend that the law is an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion in a coun­try still reel­ing from the af­ter­math of a coup at­tempt last year and en­dur­ing an on­go­ing crack­down on dis­si­dents under a 16-month long state of emer­gency. They say it is part of a broader cam­paign by the gov­ern­ment to im­pose con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic val­ues on a di­vided so­ci­ety.

Crit­ics point to other re­cent changes that they say are in­dica­tive of an at­tempt to es­tab­lish the dom­i­nance of Sunni Is­lam in a repub­lic cre­ated on sec­u­lar prin­ci­ples. They cite changes to the school cur­ricu­lum that have ended the prac­tice of teach­ing evo­lu­tion in high school and in­tro­duced a state-spon­sored ex­pla­na­tion of the con­cept of ji­had.

They also fear the gov­ern­ment is turn­ing a blind eye to other dan­ger­ous trends that are harm­ful to women’s rights, such as child mar­riage. The Turk­ish le­gal sys­tem sets the min­i­mum mar­riage age at 17, with some ex­cep­tions for girls aged 16, with an es­ti­mated 232,000 such mar­riages con­ducted in the past four years. Women’s rights cam­paign­ers es­ti­mate that a third of all mar­riages in Turkey in­clude girls under the age of 18. “From the way this draft law was pre­pared with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of sides who will be af­fected, such as muftis or women’s groups, it is a sign of an en­force­ment of an idea,” said Selina Doğan, an op­po­si­tion MP in Istanbul, who pointed out that women cam­paign­ing against the law in front of par­lia­ment were pep­per sprayed. “One man [Erdoğan] has the power and a change to a po­lit­i­cal Is­lamist regime is planned.”

Efforts to change long-es­tab­lished fam­ily le­gal prin­ci­ples in Turkey have emerged as a light­ning rod in the bat­tle be­tween Is­lamists and sec­u­lar­ists. A par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion es­tab­lished in 2016 by the rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment (AK) party to study the causes for high di­vorce rates in­tro­duced a se­ries of rec­om­men­da­tions last year that were seen as a back­ward step on women’s equal­ity and an at­tempt to im­pose con­ser­va­tive fam­ily val­ues. Among the rec­om­men­da­tions was a widely con­demned pro­posal that would have granted amnesty to some men con­victed of child sex as­sault if they marry their vic­tims. The rec­om­men­da­tion was tabled as a bill late last year then with­drawn af­ter wide­spread protests.

Other pro­pos­als in­cluded in­tro­duc­ing me­di­a­tion by re­li­gious schol­ars in di­vorce cases and changes to the pe­nal code that would de­crim­i­nalise the prac­tice of cou­ples liv­ing in a re­li­gious mar­riage with­out a civil one reg­is­tered with the state. “This is an­other trick by Erdoğan to po­larise so­ci­ety and con­sol­i­date his 50% base and noth­ing else,” said En­gin Al­tay, a politi­cian with the largest op­po­si­tion party. “While Turkey is burn­ing with moun­tains of prob­lems they are bring­ing this up just to sep­a­rate his base [from his op­po­nents] with un­founded dis­cus­sion.”

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdoğan de­clared that the bill would be passed ‘whether you like it or not’. Pho­to­graph: Alexei Nikol­sky/TASS

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