New Turkish law on marriages alarms women’s advocates
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.”
Constanze Letsch is a contributor to The Arab Weekly in Istanbul.