By Riada Asimovic Akyol
December 11, 2016
On Nov. 17, members of Parliament from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., proposed a bill that seemed bizarre, even in the context of Turkey, where every week seems to bring a new, shocking outrage. The bill called for people who had sexually abused underage girls before Nov. 16 to avoid punishment if the abuser agreed to marry his victim.
At first, the government denied that the bill would absolve rapists and endorse child marriage. Bekir Bozdag, the minister of justice, defended the bill by claiming it addressed only underage couples whose marriages were performed in religious ceremonies not recognized by the state because of age restrictions. The bill included a clause, Mr. Bozdag said, precluding rape, violence or coercion from pardon.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also defended the draft legislation, saying, “The proposal aims to remedy unjust suffering,” of around 3,000 families in which the men, now fathers, were placed in jail for consensually marrying underage girls.
The A.K.P. members may have thought that this would be the end of it — another law passed as part of their social conservative agenda, with little pushback in a country where civil society is increasingly repressed. But it didn’t work out that way.
As the news of the bill emerged, Turkish social media erupted in outrage. A hashtag #Tecavuzmesrulastirilamaz, which translates to “rape cannot be legitimized,” was the top trending topic on Twitter in Turkey for hours on Nov. 18. A day later, thousands of furious women took to the streets of Istanbul and other cities in protest.
This is not the first time Turkey had seen passionate protests from women: In February 2015, a brutal rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman in the city of Mersin incited demonstrations across the country. In June 2012, thousands protested a government initiative to ban abortion.
But this time something was different.
On Nov. 20, just three days after the bill was introduced, the justice minister met with representatives of civil society to discuss it. A day later, the prime minister and other A.K.P. officials met with more of the bill’s opponents. And on Nov. 22, Mr. Yildirim announced that the bill was being withdrawn.
Why was the government responsive to protests and outrage this time when previous attempts to reject radical changes to government policy failed? Opposition to the government’s bill was widespread, but a large amount of credit must go to open-minded Islamists — in particular, Islamist women.
It was only after the Women and Democracy Association, a nongovernmental organization, released a statement questioning the fundamental premises of the amnesty bill that the government decided to re-examine its position. The Women and Democracy Association is a staunchly pro-A.K.P. organization whose deputy chairwoman is Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar, the daughter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the Women and Democracy Association were not the only Islamists who spoke out. Female Islamist opinion writers, most of them typically supportive of the A.K.P. government, also took a stand against it. Sibel Eraslan, Ayse Bohurler, Fatma Barbarosoglu, all head-scarf-wearing columnists with some of Turkey’s biggest pro-government newspapers, opposed the government’s attempts to change marriage laws.
Ms. Barbarosoglu, a writer for the newspaper Yeni Safak, got to the heart of the matter when she noted that most conservatives who supported the bill were men, who were using religion. “Some conservative men persisted referring to the age of Aisha, with a copy-and-paste understanding,” she wrote, referring to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives who, according to most narratives, was 9 years old. The problem with these Muslim men, Ms. Barbarosoglu rightly pointed out, is that they are disregarding social change in the centuries since.
Yildiz Ramazanoglu, a female conservative columnist for the newspaper Karar, also opposed the bill and “those who utilize Islam to justify abuse of young girls.” According to her, it was in fact one of Islam’s revolutionary achievements “to grant women their dignity and free will.”
On Nov. 28, Turkey’s top cleric, Mehmet Gormez, also supported the progressive argument. “It is not possible to marry off a child who has not yet reached the age of being a mother,” he said, even if the parents consent. Marriage is a serious commitment, according to the Quran, he explained, which deserves full intellectual maturity — not just puberty.
Luckily, this story ended with a rare happy ending for now. Not only was the bill withdrawn, Parliament also voted to increase sentences for sexual abusers.
It’s possible a new bill on child marriage could come before the Parliament and the battle could resume. Still, the activism against the bill provided a valuable lesson. One of the most effective ways to address the scourge of statutory rape and child marriage in Turkey — and perhaps the broader Muslim world — may be to use Islamic arguments to show why they are inhumane and ill suited for today’s day and age.
The misogynists often justify their positions by referring to archaic interpretations of Islam, which is why we must work to revoke their monopoly on interpreting religion. Islam must be a part of the solution. The way forward is to emphasize that while Islam has eternal values, Islamic laws also in part reflect the norms of medieval societies — and as times change, laws should, too.
Riada Asimovic Akyol is a Ph.D. candidate at Galatasaray University in Istanbul.