Will New Women's Rights Correct Turkish Wrongs?

By Karacan, Serpil | Contemporary Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Will New Women's Rights Correct Turkish Wrongs?


Karacan, Serpil, Contemporary Review


AFTER more than half a century of struggle, Turkish women have won equality with men in marriage--on 1 January a new civil code replaced previous legislation little altered since the original was promulgated in 1926 during the reforming government of Karnal Ataturk.

The new code scraps a clause defining men as 'head of the marriage union', and formally ends the legal sanction for male dominance over wives, children and communal property. A woman can now legally represent the family, jointly decide with her husband where the family will live and retain her maiden name--if hyphenated with that of her spouse. Other provisions include raising the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18, giving children born out of wedlock the same inheritance rights as those born within marriage and permitting unmarried people to adopt children.

Describing its parliamentary passage as 'a dream come true', the country's Justice Minister, Hikmet Sami Turk, hailed the new code as the path that would lead Turkish women into the twenty-first century. The dream nearly turned into a nightmare. The most controversial measure--giving women equal division of marital assets in case of divorce--was fiercely contested by nationalist and Islamic legislators who claimed it threatens the traditional family.

Since the 1950s women's rights groups have struggled for reforms in order to address serious and widespread violations of Turkish women's health and rights. These include under-age and polygamous marriages (both illegal since 1926), forced virginity tests, sexual and domestic violence and the murders of hundreds of women and girls each year by husbands or relatives for allegedly 'dishonouring' their families.

The new legislation coincided with Turkey's continuing bid to qualify for entry into the European Union. This entry depends on the country bringing its domestic laws in line with democratic practices of EU member-states. However, Pinar Ilkkaracan, of the non-government Women for Women's Human Rights, says the new law's passage was not a result of Turkey's EU candidacy. 'The reform of the civil code has come as a result of decades of advocacy of the women's movement', she asserts. 'The fact that [it] did not meet any resistance from the public proves the public had long accepted the demands of the women's movement, but parliament was extremely late in responding to this social change'.

Ayse Gurocak, a deputy representing the ruling Democratic Left Party which sponsored the reforms, argues that although it was slow in coming, the amended civil code is a step towards implementing full democracy in Turkey. 'If there is no equality in the family there is no democracy in the society', Gurocak affirmed after the legislation finally cleared parliament. Although women's groups welcome the new legislation, some believe it does not go far enough, and that ambiguous wording in the text could even be used against women eager to assert their new rights.

'There is still a problem in the law covering a wife working', says Prof. Necla Arat, a famous rights activist. 'There are references to types of work that would damage the honour and confidence of the family. We have worries that this could be misused and misinterpreted'.

Organisations working for women's rights in poor, agrarian and socially conservative regions of the south and east of the country doubt that the new code will easily overturn centuries of inequality.

In January 1998 a new law on domestic violence was approved by parliament, which states that any family member subjected to violence in the home can file for a court protection order against the perpetrator.

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