In Turkey, civil victory is only part of women's battle

Turkey's government this week is expected to change civil codes to recognize women as men's equals.

Ayfar Yuceer would never tie the knot with someone who didn't respect her as an equal. But, she says, it's nice to know that her convictions will soon have the force of law behind them.

More than 75 years after Turkey became a secular state, the government is quietly adjusting its civil code to recognize men and women as legal equals. In changes likely to be accepted this week, the code will no longer designate men as the heads of household or leave women with next to nothing in divorce settlements.

While women have long had the right to vote, and Turkey is one of the only Muslim states to have had a female prime minister, these adjustments have been a long time coming, women's rights groups say. its civil code, passed in 1926 by Turkey's infant Republican government, contained a number of important advances for women. They were granted equal rights to divorce, equal authority over their children, and equal access to education. But in the three-quarters of a century since, Turkey's laws have stood still on women's equality.

Many of the new changes are uncontroversial. A few merely bring the law into line with current practice. One article, which requires women to seek their husbands' permission to work, already was struck down in 1994 by the constitutional court.

But women's rights groups say that other changes, particularly those related to the division of property in divorce, will have a concrete impact on the daily lives of Turkish women. Under the current law, when a Turkish couple divorces, a woman is entitled only to that property held in her name. The proposed changes would grant women half of all property acquired by the couple during their marriage.

"Since women are mainly working in the home, after a divorce they are left impoverished and with the responsibility of caring for their children," says Ela Anil, an activist with Turkish Women for Women's Human Rights.

While the changes in the civil code are part of the country's bid to enter the European Union, women's rights activists also hope they will serve as a model to other Muslim countries. "Women's rights are not totally incompatible with Islam," Ms. Anil says. "For women's groups in other Muslim countries, having Turkey as an example may be an effective tool in their internal struggles."

Turkey, which lies physically between Europe and Asia, and culturally between the secular West and Muslim East, has long struggled to balance its ambitions as a modern democratic nation with the faith if its people. Women's rights have been one battleground.

In an attempt to quash fundamentalist Muslim tendencies, for example, the Turkish government banned the wearing of traditional Muslim headscarves, or hijabs, on campuses and parliament buildings.

While the new changes are the result of long campaigns by women's rights groups, Anil says, the real battle must take place in the country's small villages and neighborhoods, where the power of custom and tradition is greater than the law.

Most women in the bustling streets of Istanbul have abandoned hijab in favor of stylish European clothes. In rural areas, and in neighborhoods of new immigrants, customs and dress are more conservative.

"We may appear progressive, but written laws are not the only thing that shapes women's lives," Anil says.

"The values and customs of society discriminate against women in much the same way that they do in other Muslim countries. When it comes to women's issues, Turkey is really not all that more progressive than its neighbors."

Despite laws requiring all citizens to attend school, a quarter of Turkish women are still illiterate. And women make up less than one-third of the country's paid workforce.

"In some parts of society, the changes will do nothing," says Ms. Yuceer, a cosmopolitan young Istanbul resident with short red-tinted hair. "I support the changes, but the people who are behaving this way, who are not treating women equally, will probably continue to do so."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.