(WOMENSENEWS)–On the first day of the year, Turkey’s civil code recognized women as equal to men, the result of parliamentary revisions that have made family law in this predominately Muslim country among the most equitable in the world. Turkey is the world’s most secular Muslim nation, even forbidding women to wear the traditional head scarf in government offices and on campus.

“This symbolizes a historic turning point,” the Ankara-based Flying Broom women’s rights group said in a statement. “Our country is closer to achieving the goal of equality between women and men.”

At a time of increased debate on the rights of Muslim women, Turkey’s revised code is revolutionary compared to similar laws in other Muslim countries. It also highlights the complex interplay of politics and religion in the Middle East.

Parliament approved the changes on November 22. The new code is in line with other legal and economic revisions Turkey has implemented with an eye on a long-sought coveted spot at the European Union table. Doubts about the Turkish military’s interference in politics and the country’s dubious human rights record have been the biggest stumbling blocks to its bid for membership in the past.

To join the union of European nations, candidates must meet strict conditions of democracy, human rights and economic openness. The European Union is currently made up of 15 western European countries but it is looking into expanding by granting membership to nations from eastern Europe.

First Changes to Code Since 1926

The revisions to the code, which had remained largely untouched since its introduction in 1926, include the abolition of the legal principle that “the head of the marriage union is the man” and it also now gives men and women equal roles in family matters.

Whereas under the old code divorced women were entitled only to property legally registered under their names, the revisions stipulate that property and assets are to be divided equally.

“I would like to stress that this clause is not only important to women seeking a divorce, but also for women already married, as it ensures economic equality in the family which is the basis for many other equalities during marriage,” Pinar Ilkkaracan, a leader of Women for Women’s Human Rights said in an interview conducted by email from Istanbul.

According to the new code, the 50-50 rule on property would apply to assets acquired after January 1, 2003. Women’s groups have demanded that the equal division be applied now to all property held by married couples but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will heed their call.

Some of the changes have simply allowed the code to catch up with what was already in practice or updated provisions that were rarely invoked. For example, under the old code, a woman had to get her husband’s permission to work outside the home, but a court voided that provision in 1994. The revisions to the code clarify that a wife does not need her husband’s consent to go out to work.

“The reform of the civil code has come as a result of decades of advocacy by the Turkish women’s movement,” Ilkkaracan said. “The fact that the reform of the civil code did not even meet any resistance from the public proves that the public has long accepted the demands of the Turkish women’s movement–it was rather the Turkish parliament which was slow.”

It remains to be seen how far such changes will improve the lot of rural women, who must contend with traditions and customs that have little to do with the legislative revisions their urban sisters enjoy. Activists say the government must do more to improve the lot of rural women by working to eradicate such traditions as underage marriage and “honor killings” in which a woman’s family murder her if they suspect her of having sex out of marriage or behaving in ways they deem improper.

“As long as there are no legal, social and economic services for rural women, they will probably be the ones who benefit from the reforms the least,” Ilkkaracan said. Such services would include a special law and nationwide program to wipe out honor crimes and the building of shelters for women victims of violence all over the country, not just in the cities, she said.

Legal Age for Marriage Raised

The new code raises the legal age for marriage to 18–up from 17 for men and 15 for women. It also requires that couples be legally separated for six months before they can file for divorce. The legal age for adopting children will fall from 35 to 30 and single parents will be allowed to adopt under the new code. Although it makes no provisions for cohabiting families, the code grants out-of-wedlock children the same inheritance rights as other offspring.

Men too will benefit. They can request alimony from wives who earn more than they do. Also, the revisions permit a man can take his wife’s surname.

To grasp the enormity of the revisions to Turkey’s civil code, consider the case of Morocco, another predominantly Muslim nation. Last year, when the government proposed giving women more rights, hundreds of thousands of Muslim fundamentalists took to the streets of Casablanca in protest.

Although an equally large number of women and human rights activists marched through the Moroccan capital Rabat in support of the plan, it is telling that the government has passed none of the revisions it was contemplating.

Among its provisions, the Moroccan plan would have replaced the practice of repudiation, or automatic divorce by a husband, by court-granted divorces, given women equal rights to ask for a divorce and would have provided for equal division of money and property. It would also have raised the marriage age for women to 18 from 15, outlaw polygamy in most cases and give divorced women the unprecedented right to retain custody of their children should they remarry.

Turkey Is Most Secular Muslim State

In Turkey, the 1926 code, which replaced the Ottoman system, prohibited both polygamy and repudiation. Republicans led by Mustafa Kemal passed the code three years after they proclaimed their secular state. The Republicans were determined to keep religion out of the political sphere, a task that successive Turkish governments, backed by the country’s staunchly secular armed forces, have worked hard to maintain.

So hard at times that ironically the Turkish government’s repression of Islamist groups is one of the reasons that the European Union has so far kept the nation’s membership pending.

For example, while women in Saudi Arabia and Iran must wear state-imposed Islamic dress in public, Turkish women are not allowed to wear headscarves in public offices or on state-run university campus. Turkey’s military-led establishment sees headscarves as a challenge to its secular system. Some students at Turkey’s public colleges get around the ban by wearing wigs.

Turkey’s ban on the headscarf made the headlines in 1999 when an Islamic lawmaker, Merve Kavacki, caused an uproar by appearing at her swearing in session in parliament wearing a head scarf. Prosecutors launched an investigation against the U.S. educated computer scientist, on possible charges of inciting religious hatred.

No charges were passed but Kavacki was later expelled from parliament and stripped of her Turkish citizenship for becoming a U.S. citizen without first notifying authorities. Turkey’s top court in June banned Kavacki’s pro-Islamic Virtue party for anti-secular activities after it decided to field women candidates–besides Kavacki–who wear head scarves.

Women’s Rights Major Step Toward Admission to European Union

Turkey’s overall poor human rights record, including its harsh crackdown on its Kurdish minority, has also earned it censure from the European Union. Human rights groups denounce Turkey for its use of torture and accuse it of being behind the disappearances of political dissidents.

In July, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit expressing its condemnation of his health minister’s decision to reinstate the practice of virginity exams for Turkish high school girls.

The rights watchdog had strongly condemned the practice in a report it issued in 1994 when the virginity tests gained wide media attention. It found it was not only high school girls who were forced to submit to the exams, but also that state authorities were performing virginity tests on female political detainees, women charged with “immodest behavior,” hospital patients, state dormitory residents and women applying for government jobs. The attempted suicide of five Turkish girls had led the Turkish government to ban the practice.

Should Turkey gain membership into the European Union, it would be the only Muslim country in the European group. It is currently the only Muslim member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A month before parliament approved the civil code revisions, it passed a sweeping series of constitutional amendments that would limit the death penalty and allow Kurdish-language broadcasts–moves aimed at boosting Turkey’s European Union ambitions. Although the amendments–which were among the reforms the European Union urged upon Turkey–were a major step, many analysts doubted they would lead to dramatic changes.

Mona Eltahawy is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Reuters News Agency and US News and World Report. Before she moved to the United States, she reported on the Middle East for 10 years for various media including Reuters and the Guardian UK.

For more information:

Human Rights Watch:

Columbia University Libraries:

European Union:

Women for Women’s Human Rights:[email protected]/msg00001.html