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Turkish government revives its anti-divorce report

The Turkish government has relaunched a debate on its controversial investigative report that seeks to prevent divorce and strengthen family unity.
Brides and bridegrooms wait for the start of their mass wedding ceremony in Ankara August 18, 2007. 207 couples were wed in the annual ceremony organised by Ankara municipality. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY) - GM1DVYNPJSAA

In Turkish writer Kerem Isik’s dystopian book, “The Rated Carnival,” each young couple gets a live-in family counselor to make sure their marriage endures and produces offspring. The book of short stories, published in 2015, describes how life in Turkey in 2043 revolves around "the sacred family," with people assigned to neighborhoods based on their civil status. The best neighborhoods, with parks and green areas, schools and recreational centers, are allocated to families with several small children, while singles and the divorced live in gender-segregated suburbs where they are forced to join “state-supported matchmaking” efforts to ensure they do not remain single for more than three years. In one story, the state censorship office urges a writer to change the end of her story on rape so that the raped woman can marry her rapist and live happily ever after.

For Turkey's Justice and Development Party government, the book might well foreshadow the perfect society. Isik’s themes closely resemble the proposals of a parliamentary investigation commission on strengthening the family. The commission’s report, dubbed the "divorce report" by Turkish media, was literally booed on the streets when it was first presented last year. But the report returned to the parliamentary agenda earlier this month, signaling that the government would not back down from its plans to make marriage easier and divorce more difficult.

The decision to revive the controversial report comes at a time when women’s associations have taken to the streets to protest a new bill that would allow Sunni religious figures, or muftis, to conduct civil marriages. Government officials say this new practice would make it easier to get married, and exempt couples from waiting in line for a license. Women’s organizations maintain that Sunni clerics conducting a civil ceremony is a violation of secularism. They also worry that the muftis would turn a blind eye to underage marriages.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Oct. 13 that the government would not back away from its mufti-marriage proposal. Speaking to his party’s local chairmen, Erdogan said, “This law will pass parliament whether you like it or not. People want both religious and civil ceremonies. They respect the muftis more than the civil authorities.”

Women’s groups have protested the bill in more than a dozen cities since Oct. 1. Now, as of Oct. 3, they've also added to their protests the revived divorce report. “Do not stop divorce — stop violence and femicide,” read various banners on the streets. Online protests continued under the hashtag #WeDoNotRecognizeDivorceCommissionReport.

The divorce report, whose formal and rather complex title is “Parliamentary Investigation Commission Report on Preventing Negative Effects on the Family Unity, Factors for Divorce and Measures for Strengthening the Family,” urges financial and housing subsidies for married couples, including considerable financial support to those who marry while at university. It recommends counseling before marriage by “experts who are trained in traditional family values” — a thinly veiled reference to local religious officers. Family counseling centers would also be tasked with providing counseling before and during the divorce “to explore whether it is possible for the couple to reconcile.” Judges would be able to send couples considering divorce to mediation sessions, and alimony payments would not exceed 10 years — a major deterrent for women who fear poverty after divorce. The report also urges television channels to “respect family values” in their programming and for the media to “respect the unity of family” in its news coverage.

The commission's report, which was finalized in May 2016, had been buried in parliament until early October 2017. On Oct. 3, it was presented, or rather, re-presented, to Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the minister of family and social affairs, leading to a heated debate between parties. The opposition members accused the government of ignoring earlier criticisms of the report and skirting the main issues that lie at the heart of divorce in Turkey: domestic violence and forced marriages.

“The problem of women in Turkey is not divorce — their problem is that they are unable to divorce,” Fatma Kaplan, of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said at the parliamentary sitting.

Kaplan was referring to the high rate of women who have been murdered by estranged husbands who would rather kill their spouses than let them leave. According to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a women’s rights group that provides legal and social assistance to victims of violence, one in every three women killed in Turkey is killed by her estranged or ex-husband, either during or after divorce. In September 2017 alone, two out of 37 women reported murdered in Turkey were killed by their ex-husbands because they turned down requests for reconciliation.

The parliamentary commission's report provides a snapshot of family life in Turkey and reveals that divorce is not a major problem in the country: The rate of divorce is 1.67 in 1,000 marriages and is predicted to be 1.97 in 2023. It is a much lower rate compared with the United States (3.2 in 1,000) or Russia (4.5 in 1,000). Turks marry early compared with other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, with 87% of Turks marrying before the age of 29, and 57% before the age of 24. The report does not mention the percentage of underage marriages, although experts believe it is one marriage out of three. The report does acknowledge that 51% of all marriages are arranged. The prospective spouses are not consulted in 10% of the arranged marriages, and 21% of divorced women report that they sought divorce due to domestic violence and ill-treatment. According to the report, many divorced women ask for state protection against their spouse, but few of them are adequately protected.

“Women who want to divorce do so by risking their lives,” Gulsum Kav, the chair of We Will Stop Femicide, told CNN-TURK. She said that the report's authors made no effort since the report's appearance a year ago to address critiques. “The report has even kept the proposal to pardon men if they had sex 'without force or threat' with a minor and if they married the victim,” she said. A bill to that effect was withdrawn from parliament in November 2016 after women’s organizations rallied against it.

“For many Turkish women, divorce is a hard process,” said Sanem Kural, the Izmir chair of We Will Stop Femicide, in a phone interview with Al-Monitor. “Many women ask for state protection during their divorce against their soon-to-be-ex-husbands. What is crucial is to increase the capacity to protect them. Turkey’s issue is not to force reconciliation on couples. The priority is to protect the decision [of the women] when they do not want to reconcile.”

Kerem Isik’s story ends with the heroine, outraged by the conservative and suffocating advice of her live-in marriage counselor, joining a resistance movement to fight the government. This, too, sounds close to the situation in Turkey today, as more and more women take to the streets to protest.

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