Turkey to Expand Rights of Women


Striving for membership in the European Union, Turkey is updating its 75-year-old civil code to advance women’s rights. The new code would give married women the right to work without spousal consent and divorced women an equal share of assets accumulated during marriage.

Parliament began debating the amendments Wednesday. They are expected to pass this week and take effect Jan. 1, abolishing the legal principle that “the head of the marriage union is the man.”

Married women would get an equal say in decisions concerning children and property. For example, either partner could ask his or her spouse not to take a job that would disrupt “calm in the marriage union.”

Women have long enjoyed greater legal rights in Turkey than in most of the Islamic world. Modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, adapted the current civil code from Swiss family law in 1926, replacing laws of the Ottoman Empire that, among other things, permitted men to have more than one wife. Ataturk encouraged women to cast off their veils and in 1934 gave them the right to vote.


But the 1926 code, among the most modern of its time, has remained virtually unchanged.

Parliament is revising it to speed Turkey’s long-sought membership in the European Union. This month, it approved 34 amendments that, among other things, loosened restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and made it more difficult for the government to ban opposition political parties. Next month the European Commission is due to issue a report card on Turkey’s progress in making its legislation conform with that of the 15 EU member states.

Women in western Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Izmir enjoy most of the same rights that their Western European counterparts do. But a wide gap separates them from women in religiously conservative provinces across Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.

Polygamy, though formally outlawed, is still widely practiced in the largely Kurdish provinces of eastern Anatolia, for example. And “honor killings” of single women accused of defaming their families--by being seen with a man in public or going to the movies on their own--occur with chilling frequency.


“What really needs to change is not just the law but the mentality of people,” said Ferda Cilalioglu, a leading women’s rights activist in the eastern province of Van. “Changing this value system will take decades.”

Feminists welcomed the proposed changes as a step forward. But they raised a storm of protest over the community property amendment.

Divorced women are now entitled to only those assets legally registered under their names. Under the amendment, the 50-50 rule for divorcing couples would apply to property acquired after Jan. 1, 2003.

More than 100 women’s groups have signed a petition calling for the 50-50 rule to be applied now to all property held by married couples. They met with lawmakers Wednesday to press their demand.


The updated code would also give men some new rights. A man could adopt his wife’s surname and, in a divorce case, seek alimony if his wife earns more than he does.

Children born outside marriage would receive equal inheritance rights. The new code would lower the legal minimum age for adopting children from 35 to 30. It would raise to 18 the legal minimum age for marriage, from the current 17 for men and 15 for women.