Imagine having to wait almost a year until you remarry. This was the case in Turkey until the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled on June 27 that the 300-day waiting period violated Article 8 (the right to respect for private life) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), in conjunction with Article 12 (the right to marry) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This waiting period requirement, which dates back to the Ottoman-era Islamic sharia legislation and is codified in Article 132 of the Turkish Civil Code, is known as “iddet,” and was originally imposed to avoid paternal filiation disputes.
Men do not have this same waiting period.
The period can be dismissed if the woman agrees to undergo a medical examination to prove she is not pregnant or if she remarries her ex-husband. The period also ends if a woman gives birth. This, according to the recent ECtHR ruling, “did not serve any pressing social need, was not proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued, and was not justified on sufficient and relevant grounds.” The ruling also deemed it not “necessary” nor “objectively justified” in a democratic society and said that it “constituted a form of direct sex-based discrimination.”
Habibe Yılmaz Kayar, founding lawyer of the Center for Legal Support to Women who represented the applicant in the ECtHR case, said the decision was a big step in protecting the rights of divorced women and ensuring gender equality in Turkey. Independent lawyer Özgecan Sırma, who declared the existence of the provision within Turkey’s legal framework a “legal oddity,” said that although the ECtHR decision was a “positive development,” it came “too late” — and with damage to the country’s international reputation.
Since this is a preliminary decision, all sides involved have three months to request a final decision. A final judgment by the European Court of Human Rights is legally binding on the respondent State.
Nuray Karaoğlu, president of KA.DER, an organization that supports the equal representation of women in all areas, felt the decision “was a turning point” and that its “implementation would eliminate discriminatory practices based on the restriction of women’s freedom of marriage and strengthen gender equality in society.”
Women under AKP leadership
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken a number of controversial stances against gender equality in recent years. The ruling party has proposed limiting abortion rights, the morning-after pill, and cesarean sections. While pregnancy terminations are still legal in Turkey until the 10th week of pregnancy and up to the 20th in cases of medical risk, finding hospitals to carry out the procedure has become practically impossible.
In 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused feminists of not understanding motherhood. Speaking at a summit in Istanbul, he reportedly said, “Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.” He has also said that gender equality was “against human nature” and that working women were “deficient.” Most recently, in January 2023, Turkey’s state religious body, which has targeted women in the past, said that women cannot travel alone.
In the run-up to the election, the AKP and its leader made alliances with numerous parties looking to dismantle women’s rights in the country, including lifting Law 6284, which protects women against domestic violence.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Index Report, Turkey ranked 124th among the 146 countries researched. Although the country has made strides since 2021, when the country was ranked 133rd, there has been an overall decline since 2006, when Turkey was ranked 105th.
With general elections now over, the prospect of change when it comes to women’s rights is not looking promising. According to Gizem Gül Kurekçi, a member of SOL Parti (Left Party) and its Left Feminist Movement, difficult times await women in Turkey. In an interview with Aposto, an online news platform, Kurekçi said that challenges abound on issues ranging from alimony rights and early marriage to attempts to exclude women from workplaces. The newly formed right-wing government “will try to erase women,” Kurekçi told the newspaper.
Out of 17 ministerial positions in that government, only one is held by a woman, and she heads the Family and Social Services Ministry. Out of 600 members of the newly formed parliament, only 121 are women.
Women in Turkey, according to the most recent state statistics, already lag behind men when it comes to employment opportunities. The labor force participation rate, calculated by combining the working population and the unemployed or job-seeking population, is 70.3 percent for men, and 32.8 percent for women. While 10.7 percent of men are unemployed, this rate rises to 14.7 for women.
“I suspect pressure against women will only increase,” said Berfu Şeker of the Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways non-governmental organization. “Throughout its time in the government, the ruling Justice and Development Party tried portraying women as caretakers of families. That men and women were never equal. That they cannot leave their families to make careers. Similarly, violence against women is another issue. Withdrawal of Turkey from [the] Istanbul Convention is a serious threat to women’s livelihoods,” explained Şeker in an interview with COSMO Turkish language radio.
Canan Güllü, president of the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey (TKDF), agrees. In an interview with Voice of America’s Turkish language service, Güllü stressed how, over the years, the government lacked policies that strengthened women’s rights and instead resisted attempts to ensure gender equality, changing the name of the Ministry of Women and Family several times in the process.
The Ministry of State Responsible for Women and Family was closed in 2011 and was replaced with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. Since then, scores of women’s rights organizations have campaigned to create a separate ministry responsible for women’s rights on the grounds that it was not accurate to view women and families as equal entities. One of the popular slogans since then has been, “We are not a family, we are women” — but for President Erdoğan, who at the time served as prime minister, this was not the case. In response to a 2011 signature campaign that asked for the revocation of his decision to close the ministry, Erdoğan said, “We are a conservative democratic party. Family is important to us.”
The ministry’s name has been changed five times since its establishment, reflecting the shifting social and political dynamics in the country. The two most recent reiterations were implemented in 2018, when the Ministry of Labor and Social Security was merged with the Ministry of Family, becoming the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Services. In 2021, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security was separated, and since then has been referred to in its current format — the Ministry of Family and Social Services.
As it has in the past, the 2021 name change drew criticism from politicians and women’s rights organizations alike. They argued that the government, which has pulled the country out of the Istanbul Convention and declared that men and women are not equal, cannot produce positive policies for gender equality and women.
“Instead of solving women’s problems, [the state’s approach] has focused on protecting the family [instead],” wrote analyst Menekşe Tokyay. Similarly, instead of fighting male violence, the state is discussing alimony rights and suggesting that women reconcile with their [abusive] partners.
Even the state’s concept of “family values” is problematic. The AKP views families as closed, nuclear households, where women are not equal to men, are often condemned to traditional roles, and must bear a minimum of three children. Violence against women, pedophilia, child abuse, and other injustices are often covered up, dismissed, or defined as isolated cases.
In 2016, members of the ruling party suggested a new bill that would allow perpetrators of sexual abuse against children to get away with the crime if they agreed to marry the victim. The bill was dropped after public outcry. The same year, former Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ wondered, “How right it was for the state, police, soldiers, judges, psychologists, social workers, and experts to come between a man and woman in cases of domestic violence and disagreements.” In 2018, Erdoğan lashed out at the media over its coverage of domestic violence: “Television broadcasts have overdone this business. I call on the media here: Please cut these types of broadcasts. Otherwise, you will drive this nation over the edge.”
According to academic Hikment Kocamaner, the AKP’s “family-related policies […] reinforce and reinstate a patriarchal social structure in which women are confined to their homes to fulfill their reproductive, nurturing, and caregiving roles rather than participating in the public sphere as economically independent and self-reliant individuals.”
The Istanbul Convention
July 1, 2023, marked two years since Turkey pulled out of the Istanbul Convention. According to documentation and monitoring by local women’s rights organizations, since Turkey withdrew, over 600 women have been murdered by men in Turkey, and over 400 women have died under suspicious circumstances. These stark numbers contradict the state’s promises made in 2021 as it announced its decision to withdraw from the convention. At the time, the head of the Directorate for Communications, Fahrettin Altun, stressed that Turkey’s existing legislation was sufficient to prevent violence against women:
With these regulations that we made in our domestic law, we strengthened our legal infrastructure in terms of ‘combating violence against women’. From now on, we will implement new regulations to consolidate further the rights that our women have gained with a much more dynamic perspective. Our government will work with all its strength to end violence against women and to further empower women's place in social life.
This statement also came before the ruling AKP made alliances with ultra-religious and conservative parties ahead of Turkey’s 2023 general election. One of the parties has called to close down LGBTQ+ clubs in the country and amend Law 6284 on preventing violence against women and children.
There are fears that the new constitutional amendments will further erode women’s rights in Turkey. According to Karaca, the state is aiming “to take away our rights to equality and freedom” with the proposed amendments, creating “a terrible darkness that will affect all women living in this country, no matter what party they voted for, what belief, worldview, or lifestyle they hold.”
On June 15, President Erdoğan — repeating his October 2022 statement — promised the introduction of a new “civilian, liberal, encompassing constitution that will be embraced by all segments” and would guarantee the rights and freedoms of citizens.
Prior to elections, the government proposed amendments to certain sections of the Constitution. The suggested changes to Article 24, which regulates the freedom of religion and conscience, concerning headscarves. If adopted, women’s right to wear a headscarf would become a constitutional right, safeguarding women against religious discrimination in any field of life, including the public and private sectors. Other amendments proposed to Article 41, which serves to protect the family and children, called for the term “spouses” to explicitly refer to a “man and woman,” in keeping with the state’s increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ narrative.
In January 2023, 171 Women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations criticized the proposed amendments on the grounds that they are “discriminatory and expressly against the principles of equality and secularism of the Constitution” in a country where women already “experience discrimination and male violence both in public and private spaces because they are women.” The group also criticized the state for failing to open the proposed amendments for a public discussion or seek the opinion of any women’s organizations:
Article 24: The proposal, in its current form, is a mere manifestation of the domination men try to establish over women’s body; an indication of the patriarchal mentality that seeks to exclude women from public space and strip them off of their status as subjects of rights by imposing norms and exerting pressure to dictate what women should and should not wear.
While the recent European Court ruling is a step in the right direction, therefore, many other steps to improve women’s rights in Turkey must be taken — not only for women to be respected, but for society as a whole to be represented, respected, and protected.