By Kareem Shaheen and Gokce Saracoglu
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.”
Published on The Guardian on November 15, 2017.