New Turkish law on marriages alarms women’s advocates

Sunday 12/11/2017
Rampant Islamisation. Turkish women, with a red dot painted on their hands, gather outside the Turkish parliament in Ankara to protest against a draft law granting muftis the right to register marriage contracts, on October 12. (AFP)

Istanbul - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed into law a controversial bill that allows for state-regis­tered religious scholars to conduct civil marriage ceremonies, a proposal slammed by critics for fa­cilitating child marriages and abuse of underage girls.
The law lets muftis, Sunni reli­gious scholars who work for the Turkish Directorate of Religious Af­fairs (Diyanet), perform and register civil marriages. Previously they were only allowed to conduct religious marriage ceremonies if requested by the couple but such marriages were not recognised legally. Only munici­palities, registry offices, elected vil­lage heads (muhtar in Turkish), cap­tains of ships and Turkish foreign missions were previously authorised to conduct civil marriage ceremo­nies.
While the ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP), which brought the bill before parliament in July, argued that the legislation will make registering civil marriages easier, the opposition criticised the changes as anti-constitutional and discrimina­tory.
Filiz Kerestecioglu, an Istanbul MP for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), warned of the consequences of handing such authority to the Diyanet and its em­ployees.
“With this law [the government] aims to impose a conservative way of life. This hands very serious con­trol to an institution that says it does not believe in equality between men and women and that continuously preaches that women should not get a divorce,” Kerestecioglu said in par­liament.
She warned that the law would lead to deeper polarisation in Tur­key, driving a wedge between those who opt for a religious marriage and those preferring a civil ceremony.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s long-standing de­fenders of a strict secular order, op­posed the new law as an attempt by the AKP to impose an Islamist agenda. Ozgur Ozel, a CHP MP, an­nounced at a news conference that his party would apply to the Consti­tutional Court to challenge the new authority handed to muftis.
One activist of a major women’s rights organisation, who wished to remain anonymous, voiced concern that the law violates the state’s secu­lar principles.
“To link this civil right to a reli­gious institution is a major breach of the secular order in Turkey,” she said, “and this directly affects wom­en’s rights and the principle of gen­der equality. This is just the first step but an important one. The next one could aim at the way we dress and how to behave in public.”
Erdogan dismissed such criti­cisms, arguing that most couples in Turkey wish to marry before a reli­gious authority and that some West­ern countries let clerics conduct offi­cially recognised weddings.
Women’s rights groups are con­cerned about abuse and the potential increase of child marriages, which they fear clerics are more likely to turn a blind eye to. Kerestecioglu said the overwhelming majority of marriages in which at least one party is underage in Turkey are conducted by imams or muftis.
“Turkey is a country where child abuse is very common,” Kerestecio­glu said. “We are being told that muftis will conduct civil marriages and that there will not be any official child marriages. We know that it is the authority to conduct civil mar­riages that is being given to muftis.
“But, according to a study con­ducted by Hacettepe University on behalf of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, 95% of child marriag­es are conducted by state-approved imams. So there are already those who do this and there is absolutely no guarantee that this will not in­crease and there will be no cover-ups once they have the authority to con­duct civil marriages.”
In Turkey, the minimum age of marriage is 17 for both men and women. UNICEF figures published in 2016 indicate that 15% of girls in Turkey marry before the age of 18 and are therefore considered child brides.
Girls Not Brides, an international rights group that aims to end child marriages, warned that the num­ber might be higher as many child marriages are unregistered. Turkish women’s rights groups said many child brides in Turkey come from Syrian families who entered the country as refugees and who are es­pecially vulnerable to abuse and ex­ploitation.
Polygamy, outlawed in Turkey almost a century ago but still prac­tised in rural areas, is on the rise. An increasing number of Turkish men, especially in the regions close to the Syrian border, choose to marry Syr­ian women despite already being married to a woman from Turkey.
In some rural areas women risk ending up as a second, third or even fourth wife, called “kuma” in Turk­ish. Such marriages were performed only by an imam and could therefore not be officially registered, leaving women without legal protections or rights in the event of a separation or the spouse’s death.
Erdogan argued that the new leg­islation end to such insecure — and illegal — marriages. “There will not be unregistered but registered mar­riages. It is [this law] that will lift these irregularities,” he said.
The women’s rights activist was not reassured.
“The only thing that will happen is that imams who used to perform ille­gal marriages will now feel embold­ened… They will justify their actions with religious demands. Things will only get worse, not better.”