Where would you like your daughter to be when she is 13? In school, or in bed with a grown man? The answer to this question is largely beyond argument in much of the world. In Islamic societies, however -- including non-Arab and theoretically secular Turkey -- the answer is anyone's guess. Usually in such states, the police power of the government does not fight the patriarchal tradition; instead, it supports it.
Turkey's former president, Abdullah Gül, incumbent Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's former ally and co-founder of the party that has ruled Turkey since 2002, was a 30-year-old man when he married his wife Hayrünnisa when she was 15. Gül, nominated for the presidency by Erdoğan, was Turkey's first Islamist president.
Turkey's president from 2007 to 2014, Abdullah Gül (left), was a 30-year-old man when he married his wife Hayrünnisa (right) when she was 15 years old. (Photo by NATO press office via Getty Images)
Conservative Turks, instead of questioning Gül's marriage to a child, cheered his rise to the presidency. This author was privately -- but not politely -- warned several times by senior politicians against bringing up the issue in his column in another newspaper.
According to Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF), 40% of girls under the age of 18 in Turkey are forced into marriage. TPF found that the Turkish national average of female high school dropouts was 56%. It further found that early marriage is seen in families with a low education level. "Low education" means almost all of Turkey: The average schooling in the country is a mere 6.5 years. In 45 Turkish provinces, the schooling rate is below the national average.
The Islamist rule in the once secular country has added to the problem of child brides instead of combating it. In November 2017, President Erdoğan signed the "mufti law," which allows state-approved clerics (or simply imams) to conduct marriage ceremonies, "despite concerns from civil society that this could have an impact on child marriage."
In January 2018, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) -- a government body under Erdoğan's jurisdiction -- suggested that according to Islamic law, girls as young as 9 years old and boys as young as 12 could marry. Diyanet is responsible for administering religious institutions in Turkey. Its website reaffirmed that, according to Islamic law, whoever had reached the age of "adolescence" had the right to marry. This "fatwa" prompted the country's main opposition party, a secular group, to call for an investigation into child marriages.
The arrival of around three million Syrian refugees to Turkey since civil war broke out in the neighboring country has made things worse. For instance, a social worker at the Kanuni Sultan Süleyman Training and Research Hospital in Istanbul's Küçükçekmece district revealed that the hospital treated 115 pregnant underage girls, including 39 Syrian nationals, between Jan. 1 and May 9, 2017. The social worker complained to prosecutors that the hospital tried to cover up the pregnancies and did not notify the authorities, as is a legal requirement for the treatment of all pregnant girls younger than 18 in Turkey. Such examples are only the "tip of the iceberg," according to Canan Güllü, head of the Turkish Women Associations Federation.
A recent case of Syrian refugee-related child abuse is an embarrassment not only for the Turkish political culture that has nurtured the malady but also for the Turkish judiciary:
Fatma C., a Syrian child refugee arrived in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with her family four years ago. In 2017, according to an indictment, she was forced at the age of 13 to marry her relative, Abdulkerim J. The marriage was not civil but religious (made legal under Islam by an imam). Fatma C. got pregnant and was taken to a local health center where, because she was younger than 18, authorities informed law enforcement authorities.
Prosecutors decided that the girl's husband and her mother, Emani B., should stand trial for forcing an underage girl into marriage. So, stand trial they did. But a court in Ankara ruled during the first hearing of the case to acquit them. The defendants maintained that they did not know the Turkish law on marriage and that the girl had married "under Syrian law." An unusually tolerant Turkish prosecutor ruled that the "marriage took place not with the intention of committing an offense."
"It is universal rule that not knowing the law is not an excuse when one offends," said Ceren Kalay Eken, a lawyer from the Ankara Bar Association. "The appropriate place for a 13-year-old girl is on the school bench, not tending to the cradle."
It is amazing how soft and tolerant Turkish law enforcement can be when the offenders act from motives derived from austere Islamic values and traditions. Around the same time as the child bride's abusers went free during their first hearing, another Ankara court arrested four university students for exhibiting at their graduation ceremony a placard that the court deemed insulting to President Erdoğan. In Turkey, you may abuse a 13-year-old and walk free, but you may not tease the president.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from Turkey's leading newspaper after 29 years, for writing what was taking place in Turkey for Gatestone. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.