Family, Identity and Women's Rights In Turkey

by Manuela Borraccino |  September 20, 2016

Turkish women and children in Istanbul. (photo G. Caffulli)

Turkish legislators are examining a new bill on family law. According to Professor Kelly Pemberton the new rules currently under discussion could mark a step backwards in women's rights.

The Turkish Parliament is examining a new bill on family law. According to Professor Kelly Pemberton - author of numerous essays on Turkey and a member of the Department of Religion and the Women's Studies Program at George Washington University (USA) - the new rules currently under discussion in Ankara, if approved, could mark a step backwards in women's rights. They are "an expression of the ongoing struggle for the Turkish cultural identity" between Kemalism and instances of the religiously conservative new middle class, on the rise with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Professor Pemberton, how do you evaluate the debate around this attempt at forging new legislation to reduce the divorce rate?
I don’t see that there is a lot of public debate around the Parliamentary Commission’s draft report on divorce. This doesn’t seem to be a big issue in Turkey, and less so since the coup earlier this month. However, what I understand so far is that feminist and secular activist groups see the report as a huge step backwards in women’s rights and the rights of children. There seem to be a number of provisions in it that are aimed at making it more difficult for women to obtain a divorce, get maintenance/alimony in the event of a divorce, and escape an abusive marriage. Some of the most disturbing elements of the report that activists have seized upon include the lowering of the marriage age to 15 (it is currently 17). In reality, there is very little, if anything, being done by the State to combat the problem of underage marriage, or “religious” marriages (both of which are banned, and both of which may involve minors.) Underage marriages take place fairly commonly in Anatolia, and by some estimates as many as 33% of minor girls in Turkey are or have been married. The latter type of marriage is also a way in which men have been able to circumvent the ban on polygamy, since “religious” marriages are not recognized by the state. Another disturbing element is the provision regarding non-persecution of individuals who engage in a sexual relationship with a minor, if they then marry that minor and maintain a “trouble free” marriage for at least 5 years. I think that the debate over the report of the Divorce Commission remains fundamentally about the encroaching role of the State in matters of individual liberty. The Diyanet (Ministry of Religious Affairs) has seemingly increased its reach into the lives of ordinary people by attempting to implement the State’s ideology on moral behavior.

What is the meaning of these attempts at forging new legislation in the context of the condition of women in Turkey?
The secularists see this debate as a small part of a larger war against women that has been escalating since the AKP’s rise to power (blaming the rise of Islamic politics but also seeing this as another example of the patriarchy that cuts through all classes and ideologies in Turkey, beyond the secular/religious divide), and the supporters of the AKP tend to see this debate as a reflection of the party’s efforts to maintain stability in the country, by supporting the unity of the family. So while the divorce commission report is obviously a political football, it seems to me to equally reflect a struggle over Turkish cultural identity. This is a struggle that has plagued Turkey since the rise of Kemalism, but has taken on nuanced meaning with the rise of the AKP and the expansion of a middle class from elements of society that have been marginalized for decades, but that now feel that their voices are being heard, and their concerns reflected in the policies of the State.

The percentage of female occupation in Turkey is around 31% according to official statistics. What trends can you foresee for the future?
I think that the economic pressures on the State, including the crisis of Syrian refugees and the tensions with the US and other Western countries, will affect Turkey’s economy negatively. If that is the case, opportunities for women to become more economically independent and engaged in the formal economy in Turkey may well decrease. However, the policy of the State has been to increase female labor force participation by encouraging women to enter the service sector, and by creating family-friendly policies (such as increasing affordable childcare options, and offering women access to paid part-time work up until the child begins primary school) that encourage women to enter the workforce after having children. The participation of women in the formal economy has already increased substantially over the past 5-6 years, and this is due in large part to State policies encouraging women’s labor force participation. If Turkey’s economy remains stable, then the State will continue to encourage this participation.

What has been the role of women in the rise of the new Anatolian middle class and in the political success of the AKP?
Since the 1990s, headscarf-wearing women have been instrumental in helping elect the Refah party and the AKP to power, even going door to door and mobilizing other women to vote for these parties. Women were also instrumental in building the rival economies targeting pious consumers. Although the headscarf was banned in 1989, with a partial lifting of that ban in 2010, headscarf-wearing women were able to get a high level of education in the urban areas (for example, Bogazici University admitted such women to its programs. The headscarf is worn in some form by most pious Turkish women – there are differences in styles of headscarf that may identify one as religiously pious, politically motivated, or “culturally Muslim” but not necessarily pious). Although job opportunities within Turkey remained limited for such women through the 1990s and early 2000s, those who could traveled abroad to the Gulf or other Muslim-majority nations for work and sent remittances back home. On the other hand, the AKP has instituted a number of policies that have made it easier for women to stay at home (and not enter the formal labor market), including financial incentives to families to have up to 3 children. That was not the intention of the policy, but has been one of its results. These kinds of policies co-exist with a now decades-long history in which Islamically minded groups (formal and informal organizations, civic and religious) have sought to promote Islamic terminology and values in Turkish society, many of which are reflected in the bodies and behavior of women. To sum it up, the AKP has been one of the most instrumental midwives of the rise of this increasingly urbanized, middle class, religiously conservative population, and their popularity remains relatively high among these constituents, even with the rising tide of authoritarianism, stifling of free speech, and apparent decline of women's rights under the AKP's watch.

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