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Ylenia Gostoli

The 'mufti marriage law' and child brides in Turkey

A young woman on her wedding day in Antakya [AFP]

Date of publication: 22 November, 2017

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In-depth: Changes to Turkey's marriage laws may only make underage marriage rates - linked to rising illiteracy rates - rise even higher, writes Ylenia Gostoli.
An 18-year-old girl identified as N.G. submitted a 30-page complaint to a court in the south-western city of Antalya in October, detailing years of sexual abuse by her family. The girl, who was married at 15, claimed she was later forced into prostitution.

While this may be an extreme case,  underage marriage through unofficial religious unions is widespread throughout Turkey – despite also being illegal.

The case was reported by the Platform to Stop Women's Murders, one of 100 women′s and LGBTI organisations that launched a campaign earlier this year against a proposed new law that would allow state-employed muftis - religious scholars who can interpret Islamic law and issue 'fatwas' - to register marriages.

They argued that the law, which came into force last week, would increase the risk of women being exposed to early marriage and abuse. The group cited fears that a lack of oversight existed over local religious leaders who would be empowered to marry couples.

The debate polarised public opinion and split the women's movement along the secularist-religious lines that are as old as the Turkish Republic. Those in favour of the law - tabled by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) - say it was made to reduce the number of unofficial unions.

According to a 2016 study, 97 percent of couples in Turkey go through both a civil marriage and a religious ceremony. However, the number of unofficial religious weddings is difficult to keep track of, as no records exist. Turkey wouldn't be the first country where couples can marry in a legally-recognised religious ceremony – the UK and the US are just two more examples.

There is little doubt that Turkey has a long-standing problem with child marriages and that women are most affected by it. According to the latest survey carried out by the Turkish Statistical Institute, nearly one in five people in Turkey (17.9 percent) will get married before reaching the age of 18. When it comes to women, this number goes up to nearly 30 percent.

Underage and forced marriages have been illegal in Turkey since 2001, when a change in the Civil Code brought the legal consenting age up to 18 for both men and women, from 15 for women and 17 for men. However, it is possible to marry before 16 with court consent, which is meant to be granted in "exceptional circumstances".

Statistics from Turkey's  Ministry of  Health, showing that 35 percent of babies in 2016 were born to women under 18 can be seen as further evidence of the high prevalence of early marriage. More than 2,400 babies born to girls under 17 died in the past 11 years in Turkey.

Children who are forced to marry early are more often exposed to violence

Unofficial religious unions account for many of the underage marriages taking place in Turkey, which until the passing of the "mufti marriage law" were illegal and lacked the protections that come with a civil union.

Some feminists in the Islamic camp have defended the bill on this basis. The AKP-affiliated Kadem (Women and Democracy Association) believe it constitutes a step forward in the fight against child marriage.

Kadem released a statement that harshly criticised a public outcry against the bill as "unfounded" and "polarising". They maintain that the law is needed in order to stamp out the practice of illegal religious marriages and thus prevent the abuse it can lead to.

"The rights and freedom of women should be protected by law, and [this] bill will make it easier for couples to marry legally," a spokesperson for the organisation told the New Arab. Around 100 organisations supported their statement.

"What renders women unprotected is the fact that the government has abolished the condition of civil marriage for the religious marriage ceremony recently," said Gulsum Kav, a doctor and the chairwoman of the Platform to Stop Women's Murders.

In 2015, Turkey's Constitutional Court made it no longer mandatory for couples to register their civil union before conducting a religious ceremony.

The rationale behind the change was that just as couples can live together without being married, so those who wish their union to stay unofficial should be able to do so. But critics argue the two are not comparable and that a religious wedding carries a different "social weight" and set of responsibilities without rights.

Kav, who works in a centre specialising in child abuse, says there is a direct correlation between violence and early marriage.

"Children who are forced to marry early are more often exposed to violence," Kav told the New Arab, adding that the solution is enforcing existing law rather than introducing news ones.

The fact that a policy that does not believe women have equal rights is dominant, makes the emergence of violence easier

"The child protection law is sufficient to protect the rights of children and enforcing it would be sufficient to prevent early marriages," she added.

Poverty and perceptions of gender roles in society play a major role in the prevalence of child marriages.

Research presented in 2013 at Gaziantep University saw a direct correlation between early marriage  and literacy rates – with 82 percent of child brides registered as illiterate. The presence of more than three million Syrian refugees in the country, with limited opportunities to work and earn a living, has also contributed to fueling the phenomenon.

It is not the first time that the AKP-dominated government generates public outcry with laws concerning women. In 2016, a bill proposing that convicted child abusers be pardoned if they marry their victim was taken off the table amid protests from feminists on all sides of the political spectrum.

But secular feminists like Kav see the "mufti-marriage law" as a sign the conservative AKP is turning the clock back on women's rights in the country.

"Oppression can't be concealed with 'holiness' in a secular society," Kav said.

"The fact that a policy that does not believe women have equal rights is dominant, makes the emergence of violence easier."

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