Women's Rights and Islam in Turkish Politics: The Civil Code Amendment

By Arat, Yesim | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Women's Rights and Islam in Turkish Politics: The Civil Code Amendment


Arat, Yesim, The Middle East Journal


Literature on Turkey's 2001 civil code amendment, which expanded women's rights, is limited to reports on the code's achievements and failings. This article examines the parliamentary debates behind the amendment to shed light on the contemporary Islamist-secularist polarization in Turkey. It shows that women's rights are still a means to pursue the goals of secularist modernization. They shape the power struggle over what the role of religion in public life should be and what secularism should entail.

On November 22, 2001, the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) accepted the amendment of the Turkish civil code after almost 50 years of unsuccessful attempts.1 The new code expanded women's rights. Several amendments were made to the code after 1926, when the civil code was adopted. However, more comprehensive attempts to change the code in favor of women that were proposed after 1951 never materialized into an amendment. The new code of 2001 redressed the biases which relegated women to a secondary position within marriage. Articles which declared the husband to be the head of the household, expected him to earn for the family, and expected the wife to be his helper were deleted. The minimum age of marriage which was 17 for men and 15 for women was raised to 18 for both men and women. Equal rights of inheritance were extended to children born outside wedlock. Perhaps most radically, women's unremunerated labor at home was finally recognized when the property regime changed from one based on separate ownership of property to one based on the sharing of property acquired during marriage. In cases of divorce, women could thus claim a share of property registered in their husbands' names if the property was acquired during marriage.

Feminists and women who had worked for its realization for more than two decades celebrated the amendment, though they had their criticisms. The changes in the code tells us a great deal about the transformations taking place regarding the status of women in Turkey. They tell us even more, perhaps, about the changing dynamics of Turkish politics and the root causes of Islamist2-secularist polarization in Turkey.

In this article, I shall examine the parliamentary debates behind the amendment of the civil code to explore the nature of the conflict between Islamists and secularists in Turkish politics. These debates are a colorful source for understanding the political controversy over the role of religion and the meaning of secularism that shapes Turkish society. Whether or not governments in power act against the constitutional principle of secularism - which can not be changed by the Parliament - has been, and continues to be an existential question for the Turkish Republic dating back to its inception.3 The ruling, Islamist-rooted Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), for example, was taken to the Constitutional Court and found guilty of violating Turkey's secular principles in July 2008, though the party was not closed.4 Under the circumstances, it is important to understand how Islamist-rooted political groups, as well as secular ones, tend to interpret secularism, and what boundaries they set for religious rights and secular respect for religion.

The process of amendment is also instructive in exposing how "women's rights," which were so crucial in defining Turkish modernity in the 1920s, serve, once again, as the terrain over which the nature of Turkish modernization is fought. The many available reports and reviews on the amendment mostly focus on the code's achievements and failings. Feminists who shaped the amendments have written about their hard-won victory, what the new code brings, and what improvements still need to be made.5 Others underplay the difficulty with which the amendments were made and highlight, instead, the amendments of the penal code accepted in 2004 by the AKP when it was in power, dismissing or ignoring that the AKP had opposed the new civil code when the party was in the opposition in 2001.

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