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Girls & Women

Activists Are Worried Turkey’s New Law Signals Future Women’s Rights Rollback

Turkey could be facing a “slippery slope” toward legalized child marriage after the passage of a new law, according to women’s rights groups speaking out this week.

The Turkish parliament recently passed a law allowing some religious officials to perform civil marriage ceremonies, prompting outcry from women’s rights groups and opposition parties.

Turkey has been a secular state for many decades, and during this time only government officials like municipal officials or village chiefs have been able to perform marriages, according to Al Jazeera

But the new law, which was passed last month, allows muftis — Muslim religious clerics who issue religious opinions and interpretations and serve under the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate — to perform civil marriages.

Critics worry the new law could create a legal loophole that will lead to an increase in child marriages, Reuters reported.

Take Action: Tell world leaders to stop child marriage for good

Around 99% of Turkey’s population is Muslim, according to the US State Department, and many people choose to have religious ceremonies, but they do so in addition to obtaining a civil marriage, the Guardian reported.

But “Islam right now does not have a minimum age for marriage, so while Turkey’s legal age of civil marriage is 17 [with parental consent or even], 16 with court consent, this new law signals a slippery slope,” Zahra Vieneuve, Program Director for Freedom from Violence at Global Fund for Women, told Global Citizen.

Rights groups and activists also fear that the law will undercut Turkey’s secularism and are concerned that the move foreshadows future laws that will diminish women’s rights.

“Turkey is clamping down on civil society, on rights, on secularism – and secularism is really one of our best bets when it comes to protecting women’s rights [in Turkey],” Vieneuve explained. 

As a secular nation, Turkey only recognizes civil marriages, the Huffington Post reported. This sets it apart from nearby Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, all of which do not have civil marriage and only recognize marriages performed by religious authorities.

Read more: Women in the Middle East Are More Educated Than Ever Before — But Still Held Back by Discriminatory Laws

However, in rural areas of Turkey, many forgo the civil marriage in favor of religious ceremonies, though those unions are not officially recognized by the government. Women who were “married” only through religious ceremonies in Turkey are not entitled to the same rights as women who are officially recognized as married — including the right to get divorced and to receive alimony and child support, according to the Middle East Institute.

It is these unregistered marriages that the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he believes the new law will reduce. 

But Vieneuve is concerned the law will do more harm than good. 

“With this law, Turkey is opening a very dangerous door by allowing religious clerics to perform civil marriages. Who is to say that they won’t become more powerful and be granted more power by the state?” she said.

“Civil marriage is a dream for women in Egypt, in Lebanon, and other [Middle Eastern and North African] countries where there are only religious marriages,” she said. “There are so many women’s rights groups and movements in the region that Global Fund for Women supports that are fighting to get to where Turkey is in terms of women’s rights and personal status laws — and here they are rolling back rights,” Vieneuve added.

Global Citizen campaigns in support of gender equality and against child marriage. You can take action here to help #LeveltheLaw and eliminate gender-based discrimination perpetuated in legislation. 

Activists and members of opposition parties are concerned that the new law will lead to an increase in child marriages as many children are unofficially married by religious leaders like imams in rural areas. Turkey’s legal marriage age is technically 18, though younger people can marry with parental or court permission.

“Islam right now does not have a minimum age for marriage, so while Turkey’s legal age of civil marriage is 17 [with parental consent or even], 16 with court consent, this new law signals a slippery slope,” Vieneuve explained.

According to UNICEF, 15% of children in Turkey were married by the age of 18 between 2008 and 2014.

Read more: 27 African Countries Just Met and Agreed to End Child Marriage

Under the new law, muftis will also be able to appoint Muslim clerics and imams to perform wedding ceremonies that would be recognized as civil marriages, Reuters reported.

“The practice of child marriage is very much embedded in [many] people’s lives in Turkey, and changing mind-sets about this harmful practice takes time,” Özlem Başdoğan, project coordinator for a Turkish women’s rights organization called Uçan Süpürge (Flying Broom) told UNFPA.

But rather than helping challenging people’s beliefs about child marriage, many are worried the law lends legitimacy to a harmful social norm.

“This is the act of legalising a social event that is part of Turkey’s traditions,” Abdulhamit Gul, a Turkish Justice Minister, said.

Women’s rights advocates like Vieneuve see the new law as a possible indication of future policies that may restrict women’s rights, in light of the Turkish government’s recent actions.

“We’re not being alarmist by saying this; it’s a trend in Turkey, we’re seeing a lot of reversals of rights,” Vieneuve told Global Citizen. In the midst of all of these things that Turkey is dealing with — from terrorist attacks to political instability to a crackdown on civil society — “it is a shame that this law is their priority,” she added.