The Mufti Law

The most controversial part of a legislative proposal, concerning several amendments in the Law on the Civil Registration Services (Law No. 5490) was accepted at the Turkish National Assembly on the 18th of October. For weeks women’s organizations were on the streets to protest the proposal, also known as the “Mufti Law”. Despite ongoing opposition from women and objections within the parliament, President Erdoğan was very decisive: “Whether you like it or not, this [proposal] will pass in this Parliament. Girls in Anatolia would not listen to the words of those civil servants. But to the words of a hoca (religious authority), girls as well as boys will listen to” he said and he just approved the amendments on last Friday.

The law, which women’s organizations and the parliamentary opposition have been protesting comprises significant changes in the regulation of marriage matters contrary to secular principles and to the disadvantage of women. Authorizing religious authorities, the muftis, to officiate marriages is only one of them.

In Turkey, authority for officiating marriages used to be granted to civil servants: to mayors (in cities/districts) and muhtars (in villages) according to the amendments made to the Civil Law of 1926 in 1985. In addition to the official wedding, (generally but not exclusively religious) couples also used to have an “imam marriage”, which is an optional religious ceremony with no official validity. What happens with the new law is not that the imam marriages gain official validity as such; it is a bit more complicated than that. Imam marriages will not become in-law, but muftis, who are civil servants of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri), will be authorized to register and perform marriages according to the civil law. The opponents of the regulation point to the fact that this may be just another step in the direction to render civil marriages completely redundant, reminding the decision of the constitutional court in 2015, which lifted the rule that determined civil marriage as a prerequisite for religious marriages.    Furthermore, critics say that many muftis turn a blind eye when it comes to matter of gender equality anyway. Hence, they argue, the muftis should not be tasked with further marriage matters.

Although MPs of the ruling AKP praised the new law as being in favor of women, nobody really understood how women will benefit from it. While commenting on the amendments, Hüda Kaya, a religious female MP from the left-wing HDP pointed to the fact that they have been designed for the convenience of men rather than women. According to her, the real victims of those regulations would actually be conservative, traditional women, as opposed to women with a secular life style, who would refuse to get married at a mufti office in the first place. When the need for divorce emerges, Kaya said, the former might be forced by their communities to comply with the “law”, which will render it practically impossible for those women to get divorced.

Although the mufti marriage has come in sight as the most striking feature of the new law, there are other changes which reflect the gender-biased attitude behind it. Another important amendment changes the article about birth certificates. Until now, the notice of birth of children who were born outside health institutions could be done at Civil Registry Offices “either with an official document as well as through a verbal statement”. The new law proposes the notice of birth to be done verbally only. In case the local authority- such as the district governor- thinks it is necessary, the statements will be checked by physicians working at community health centers. Women’s rights defenders argue that this implementation will make it impossible to trace sexual abuse of girls and forced marriages of minors, because the majority of those incidents are only detected when those girls deliver in hospitals and the given births are documented officially. Since the law does not define the control of verbal statements as compulsory, but regulates them upon the personal choice of the local authority, no real control mechanism does exist in this regard. Under these circumstances, it won’t be possible to define the identity of sexual abusers and rapists and press charges against them.

The last amendment applies to article 16 of law no. 5901, which regulates the acquisition of Turkish citizenship through marriage. In order for foreigners to apply for citizenship after having married a Turkish citizen, the following criteria had to be met until now: being married for at least 3 years, living together with the family, not acting in a way, incompatible with the conjugal union, and finally not being in a position with impediment for national security and public order. The new regulation adds to this list the concept of “public morale”, which the applicant for citizenship may not violate. The concept of “public morale” has been another controversial subject for a long time as it imposes male-dominated values and norms on women.