Eroding Ataturk's legacy

On 18 October, the Turkish parliament approved a controversial bill that in future will allow Islamic muftis to register weddings. Critics fear that this will erode the civil rights of women and expose more girls to the dangers of underage marriage. Ylenia Gostoli reports from Turkey

By Ylenia Gostoli

The shadow of a changing Turkey hangs over recent debates about the ″mufti marriage bill″, an article in draft legislation about civil registration services that was originally submitted to parliament on 25 July. The article, which would allow provincial and local muftis – Islamic legal authorities who are also civil servants – to register weddings alongside municipality registrars, was approved during a vote on the draft on 18 October, amid strong criticism from opposition parties CHP and HDP. They argue that it is against Turkey's constitution and have vowed to continue objecting to it legally.

Women's rights groups who oppose the bill have taken to the streets across the country in recent weeks, with 100 women′s and LGBTI organisations launching a campaign called ″For A Free and Equal Life, These Laws Shall Not Pass″.

Violating the principle of secularism

″Assigning a religious official to handle civil code matters violates the principle of secularism,″ Gulsum Kav, a medic and the chairwoman of the women's rights group We Will Stop Femicide, explains. Her views echo a widespread concern among secularists over religion's growing role in public life in Turkey.

Opponents of the law also believe it will lead to an increase in child marriages due to a lack of oversight over local religious authorities that will be given the power to register marriages.

Kadem (Women and Democracy Association), an organisation aligned with the ruling AK party's agenda, released a statement supported by more than 90 NGOs, in which they condemn the criticism as ″baseless″, and argue that it will help prevent the practice of ″secret″ religious marriages, which leave women with no rights.

″Even if religious marriages are not legal in Turkey, these kind of marriages continue to lead to some abuse, especially of women,″ a spokesperson for the organisation explains. ″To prevent exploitation and abuse, there is a big need for [religious marriages to be legalised] as a requirement of a democratic, secular and constitutional state.″

Fearing an increase in abuse

According to a 2016 survey , 97 percent of couples in Turkey go through both a civil and a religious marriage ceremony. However, the number of purely religious marriages is believed to be under-reported due to the absence of a paper trail.

″There are three main reasons for conducting purely religious marriages,″ Feride Eralp, a 27-year-old translator who campaigned against the law, explains. ″Men are either trying to marry more than one woman, marry underage, or prevent women from asserting their rights that stem from the civil code, such as equal rights to property. We know from research that the great majority of unofficial marriages or underage unofficial marriages are conducted by official imams who are on the state payroll.″Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that it was no longer mandatory for couples to first register their civil union at the municipality, then conduct a religious wedding if they chose to do so. The ruling sparked outrage from human rights activists at the time for effectively taking away existing safeguards against underage marriage, polygamy, while undermining the rights of women and children in the case of divorce or the spouse's death.

What renders women unprotected is the fact that the government has recently abolished the pre-condition of civil marriage for religious marriage ceremonies,″ says Gulsum Kav. ″Violence against women continues with impunity and any precautionary measures are not implemented. Were there a real desire to protect women, you would expect to see policies demonstrating zero tolerance of violence being implemented,″ she adds, referring to an exponential rise in both the killing of women by their close relatives and sexual violence in recent years.

″This law will just create another space where women′s bodies become political property,″ says Eralp. ″It is one more area where women will be divided into roughly two categories – secular and religious. Of course, this categorisation ignores the fact that Turkey is also home to people of other religions."

Turkish wedding couples in Istanbul (photo: picture-alliance/AA/S. Coskun)
Women in Turkey are increasingly vulnerable: this bill is only the latest in a string of developments. Last year, although forced to withdraw its rape amnesty bill, the government did abolish the pre-condition of civil marriage for religious marriage ceremonies. ″This law will just create another space where women′s bodies become political property,″ argues Feride Eralp, who campaigned against the legislation. ″It is one more area where women will be divided into roughly two categories – secular and religious″

Kiss goodbye to freedom of choice

Turkey′s secular-religious rift goes back to the country's founding and Ataturk′s westernising reforms in the 1920s. But the rise to power of Erdogan’s AKP in 2002 reversed the two sides' fortunes. Erdogan's policies – such as lifting a ban of women wearing the headscarf at university – were initially seen as bridging that divide. But many would now argue it is widening and that this latest bill is just another example.

″Even though the [government] has repeatedly stated that women would be free to choose where to conduct their marriage, we know from experience that when it comes to most things, we don′t have freedom of choice, especially when the issue is so rooted in identity politics – and especially when you're a woman,″ Eralp argues. ″Your choice may become an expression of the identity of that entire group, so the entire group decides in your name. Women will, in practice, be forced to make certain choices depending on what environment they come from, what kind of families they've been brought up in or are marrying into,″ she continues.

″People who choose instead to conduct a civil marriage in the municipality, will be marked by this. And this will become an issue of contention within families. One of the main effects will be that people will be encouraged to marry within their own religious and cultural environment.″

Ylenia Gostoli

© 2017