At the beginning of the New Year, as reported in the daily newspaper Haber Türk (Turkish News) of January 6, 2012, E.D., a 25-year old man in the northwestern Turkish city of Bolu, took his 11-year old "wife," Z.Ç., to the hospital because she suffered pain. The news story identified the couple only by their initials. The doctor diagnosed the girl as eight months pregnant by her "husband." Whether the girl was in a condition to consent to sexual relations is obviously questionable. One would more probably assume she was raped by the 25-year old.
Marriage to an 11-year old girl is illegal in Turkey, but such cases are a constant in the country's life.
The doctor called for the girl to be kept in the hospital for in-patient care, but her "spouse" refused, and the couple returned to their village, Alpagut, near Bolu. The hospital released them after the girl signed a document declaring her wish to leave the facility.
Two days afterward, the governor of Bolu province stated that he had spoken with health authorities who assured him the girl must have been older than 11, given her bone structure.
E.D. and Z.Ç. told the doctor they had been married by an imam. Their neighbors had warned them that if they went to a city and disclosed this fact, they would face legal trouble.
In 1926, the Turkish Republic, founded three years before, adopted a legal code based on that of Switzerland. Civil marriage was introduced and "Islamic marriages" performed by an imam were reduced in status. Articles 230/5-6 of the Turkish Criminal Code prohibit a religious marriage ceremony unless a civil, state-recognized, official marriage has previously been contracted. The law is clear and precise, as follows:
(Article 230/5) Anyone who holds a religious marriage ceremony without a civil marriage shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of from two to six months. However, if a civil marriage is carried out, any public legal proceedings, sentences and other consequences thereof shall be cancelled.
(Article 230/6) Anyone who performs a religious marriage ceremony without seeking a document verifying that a marriage contract has been concluded in accordance with the law shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a period of two to six months."
Nevertheless, "imam marriages" without civil registration still take place frequently in Turkey.
Turkish laws forbidding such abuses appear to have no force. Further, the minds of ordinary people are trapped in medieval beliefs. The "husband" in the case of 11-year old Z.Ç. believed all was in order because the relationship had been approved by an imam.
These "traditions," including "marriage" to barely-pubescent girls, exist not only in Turkey but among Muslim immigrants in Germany. The girls are typically subjected to brutal rape. In May 2010, judicial authorities in Osnabrück, Lower Saxony, caused a scandal when the court delivered a suspended sentence to a Muslim man who had kidnapped and raped an 11-year old girl. The court justified its opinion on the grounds that such "marriages" are allegedly established in Islamic "tradition." Such an attitude by the German government is insulting to Muslims who refuse to countenance such pathologies.
In 2002, a similar case transpired in Turkey. A 13-year old girl came to school with a baby in her arms. The girl belonged to a formerly-nomadic clan that had settled on the Aegean seacoast, and in which girls were married habitually before their 14th birthday – at the latest. Thirty men were called before the criminal court, but the village was viewed as representing an isolated case. That year, the Islamist "Justice and Development Party" (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won its first national election, and Erdoğan commenced his first term as prime minister.
Turkish feminists warn that under the three AKP administrations, long-controversial patriarchal habits have once again become the norm. Men make the rules, and women stay at home, with no opportunities for personal fulfillment in education or employment.
The situation of Turkish women is inconsistent, across the country. In the same article where Haber Türk reported on the case of Z.Ç. and E.D., the news portal stated that in Diyarbakır, a major city in southeastern Turkey, 415 girls aged 11 to 17 gave birth in the first 10 months of 2011. Of the new mothers, one was 11, one was 12, four were 13, 13 were 14, 44 were 15, 115 were 16, and 237 were 17 years old.
Women in the rural eastern region must fight to survive, facing problems absent in big cities like Istanbul. This may not be unexpected in a country like Turkey. But religious and cultural habits make the lives of women worse. Human rights groups like Amnesty International denounce violence against women, social tolerance of such crimes, and the failure of male offenders to be punished effectively. According to the Turkish group Women for Women's Rights, 40 percent of all women in eastern Turkey undergo forced marriage. Publicity campaigns and initiatives to raise public consciousness try to focus attention on these injustices, but have yet to produce significant success in expunging them.
Domestic violence is increasing in Turkey, where a woman is murdered by a family member about once every other day. Women may turn to the police but rarely are protected adequately. At the end of 2010, a woman was killed by her ex-husband in the presence of police officers.
Sahibe Kara, director of a women's shelter in Istanbul, protects 10 women. According to her, domestic violence and sexual abuse are the main motives for women seeking assistance. A study by the state Ministry of Family and Social Policy admitted that 41 percent of all women in Turkey experience domestic violence. The recorded number of family murders has also risen in an alarming manner: from 66 in 2002 to 933 in 2009.
Meanwhile, employment of women is decreasing. Only about 27 percent of Turkish women have jobs. The economist Nur Ger recently declared that a five percent increase in women's employment would lift 15 percent of poor families above the poverty line. But the AKP government shows no interest in improving female participation in the workforce.
Instead, Islamist politicians and other figures have begun a debate favoring polygamy, while downplaying the problem of "marriage" by underage girls with an imam's blessing. Notwithstanding the image of patriarchal tyranny as a rural problem, Turkish society appears ready to once again tolerate polygamous relationships. Only 10 years ago, such a development was impossible to imagine.
As a further example of the degeneration of morals under Islamist influence, a new Turkish television series, "Fatmagülün sucu ne?" ("What Was Fatmagül's Crime?") has become the most successful feature among Turkish viewers. On September 16, 2010, it included depiction of a rape. The broadcast caused a national outcry, but the four-minute rape incident was televised repeatedly.
Sahibe Kara shows the women in her care the television series "Güldünya." Güldünya Tören was slain by her two brothers in 2004 after she bore an illegitimate child – a so-called "honor" murder – in southeastern Turkey. According to BBC News, she was shot once and survived, but was then shot dead by a relative who was granted entry to the hospital where she was being treated. That series brought about the establishment of an emergency police telephone hotline for women. "Güldünya" features a police task force that rescues women who use the hotline. In many scenes, neighbors or relatives call the police to help the threatened women. That series had an important educational impact. Still, Sahibe Kara worries that most women have no idea where they may go after being attacked.
"Güldünya" was cancelled after 10 episodes, in 2009, because its audience ratings were too low. In Turkey, the majority seems to side with male perpetrators rather than with female victims.