Alimony: The latest battle line for Turkey’s women – Ceren Iskit / TURKEY RECAP

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Although the women’s movement in Turkey has gained strength and popular support in recent years, women’s rights – collectively – have come under increasing state pressure and legal scrutiny.

Turkey Recap, March 8, 2024 by Ceren Iskit

This includes the decision to withdraw from the İstanbul Convention, the prohibition of the March 8 Feminist Night Marches and the regressive debates on the legal aspects of combating violence against women.

Alimony, or nafaka in Turkish, is the latest example of such legal debates.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) has long-sought to update alimony rules for women, and a draft bill was presented in the Turkish Parliament last October by the AKP’s conservative ally, the New Welfare Party (YRP).

While the regulation has not yet reached the legislative agenda, experts interviewed by Turkey recap said lawmakers may combine multiple draft laws while debating the alimony bill, likely after March 31 elections.

Such a move would expand the alimony bill to possibly include provisions on the minimum age for marriage and polygamy.

Global crisis of masculinity

The ongoing debate covers the entirety of alimony regulations, but it centers on the financial support provided to the economically disadvantaged party post-divorce.

The AKP has been actively drafting various proposals on alimony since 2018, aiming toincorporate the regulation into the 6th Judicial Package in February 2023. However, a decision was ultimately made against its inclusion.

A leading figure in the Islamic feminist movement, author Berrin Sönmez said she believes the government’s hesitancy to act stemmed from the determination and commitment of independent feminists and organizations to protect their rights in Turkey’s Civil Code.

“Women of faith in this country do not wish to lose their rights derived from the Civil Code,” Sönmez told Turkey recap.

She added Turkey’s more conservative women also don’t want to lose their rights related to inheritance, divorce, alimony, legal marriage age, and ensuring equality between spouses within the family.

“Even women within the AKP have been resisting on this matter, preventing the government from bringing [the alimony issue] to the agenda until today,” Sönmez said. “The combined resistance from both external and internal groups has effectively restrained the government.”

Still, small conservative parties with influence on the political agenda, such as YRP, have put pressure on the already willing government to prioritize the debate, ensuring discussions will continue.

The “alimony proposal“ presented by the YRP in October outlines a provision to cap alimony for poverty at five years. Should the receiving party remain adversely affected beyond this timeframe, the proposal suggests continued alimony will be paid from a fund to be established by the Ministry of Family and Social Services.

Sönmez said she viewed the attempt to restrict poverty alimony as “a reflection of the global crisis of masculinity in Turkey.”

“In Hungary, they call for ‘Christian values’. In Turkey, they refer to ‘Islamic values’. But we know that this is nothing but a patriarchal perspective,” Sönmez said. “They read the Quran with a patriarchal interpretation and try to apply to religion what their perception of masculinity needs.”

Zeynep Duygu Ağbayır of Havle, an association with the aim of “combating challenges and obstacles that women — especially Muslim women — face,” said the recent discussions were emblematic of “the AKP’s alliance and alignment with more and more right-wing groups, thereby radicalizing the party.”

According to Ağbayır, the pressure on women’s rights is not new, but the AKP is increasingly turning to [Islamic] sects.

“Not only is the AKP gaining influence over the sects, but the sects are also starting to embed themselves within the AKP,” Ağbayır said, adding some religious sects have integrated into state ministries, state institutions and universities.

“[Men have started] working together with women, whether it suits them or not,” Ağbayır continued. “In their respective fields, they often encounter women holding parallel positions and status. This unsettles them. This is a power struggle. They exploit religion to disguise the war to subdue women.”

Quran vs. Diyanet: Is nafaka haram or halal?

At the same time, Islamic law is frequently referenced in public discussions on alimony, but the direct role of religion is highly contested.

“It is inappropriate to assert that alimony for poverty contradicts Islam,” Sönmez said, adding, “First of all, the Quran does not have any clear commandment on this matter. As long as there is no explicit provision, there’s no obstacle. This is a preliminary postulate [in Islam].”

In a YouTube show two years ago, Mehmet Kapukaya, a member of the High Council of Religious Affairs of the Presidency of Religious Affairs said “it’s not halal for a woman to receive alimony for years from her divorced husband.”

Referring to his claims, Sönmez noted the Quran lays down fundamental principles and any interpretation extending beyond what is specified is governed by the idea of maruf, meaning ‘what is known, what is good,’ or ‘best practice’.

“In essence, it advocates for adopting the best practices specific to the region, place, times, and finding the most beneficial of those customs,” Sönmez said.

She said both the Diyanet and the government declare alimony to be haram by ignoring this guidance and instead adhering to patriarchal interpretations.

“When we discuss what is customary, we’re talking about traditions, culture, and local law,” Sönmez continued. “Our Civil Code represents our customary law, and within it, alimony is included. Anyone claiming that this is haram is mistaken, whether it’s the Diyanet or the world’s foremost Islamic scholar promoting it.”

Police monitor women protestors in İstanbul. © Ingrid Woudwijk

“Everybody knows”

YRP Konya MP Ali Yüksel, one of the five signatories of the “alimony regulation” bill submitted to Parliament, described the “poverty alimony” as “indefinite alimony” to Turkey recap and deemed it “unfair” regardless of whether it is for the benefit of a man or a woman.

“[Alimony] is susceptible to abuse when it is indefinite,” Yüksel said, noting the need for alimony can change if the financial circumstances of the divorced individuals improve over time.

Yüksel claimed that complaints about “indefinite alimony” are widespread and argued that although YRP does not have any statistical studies, the public demand is in this direction.

“This isn’t a matter that requires statistical evidence,” Yüksel told Turkey recap. “It’s a well-known fact in society. It’s a secret that everybody knows. It doesn’t necessarily require statistical validation.”

Sevil Ceylan Erkat, the chair of the Ankara Bar Association’s Women’s Rights Center, highlighted that while the law refers to “poverty alimony” as “indefinite”, it actually expires under certain conditions.

Erkat explained that poverty alimony could be terminated if the recipient remarries or experiences an improvement in their financial circumstances. Additionally, she notes there are other grounds for the judge to exercise discretion within the existing Civil Code.

Taxpayers shoulder it

Another key aspect of the YRP’s proposal is for the Ministry of Family and Social Services to assume responsibility for poverty alimony after a five-year period.

“Coal aid, pasta aid, food aid, monetary aid, they are all provided for those who demonstrate need and make requests. However, why should a similar provision not be in place five years after a divorce?” asked the YRP MP Yüksel.

He added such a policy would not burden the state or lead to any injustice. However, Women for Equality Platform (EŞİK) volunteer academic Nezahat Doğan Demiray does not agree.

Doğan Demiray noted the sole revenue for such a fund would be taxes, and emphasized that citizens should not be obligated to cover “the alimony of individuals, both men and women, who demonstrate irresponsibility in managing the commitments of marriage.”

On the other hand, Doğan Demiray drew attention to the meager amounts of alimony that women currently receive and raised concerns about the proposed fund.

“It is certain that the transferred funds will be limited, as the country operates within a specific income level,” Doğan Demiray said. “This financial support cannot ensure prosperity for the woman. It will not restore the divorced individual to their pre-marriage financial standing.”

Poverty due to divorce

While there is no official data or statistical study on alimony sums in Turkey, the latest figures from TurkStat show 180,954 couples divorced in 2022.

Among these divorces, 32.7 percent occurred within the first five years of marriage, while 21.6 percent took place between the 6th and 10th years. Twenty-nine percent of divorced couples had been married for more than 16 years, and only 2.6 percent of divorces happened within the first year of marriage.

Although women come to the forefront in discussions about alimony, Sevil Erkat said the Civil Code does not explicitly mention gender when it comes to post-divorce payments.

This circumstance is outlined in Article 175 of the Law as follows: “The party who will face poverty due to divorce may request alimony from the other party indefinitely, in proportion to the latter’s financial capacity for subsistence, provided that the demanding party’s fault is not significantly more severe.”

Unpaid alimony

Aylin Nazlıaka, deputy chair and chair of the Women’s Branch for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Turkey recap the prevalence of poverty alimony in favor of women is attributable to the fact that women are often the ones experiencing impoverishment after divorce.

“This picture is an outcome of gender inequality,” Nazlıaka said.

Nazlıaka pointed to a 2019 study by the Women’s Solidarity Foundation, indicating that courts fully granted only eight percent of alimony requests and contrary to the prevailing public opinion, alimony amounts are not notably high.

Nazlıaka also noted that, according to the same study, 2 percent of women received alimony above 2,000 TL in 2019, a period when the minimum wage stood at 2,324.70 TL net monthly. She highlights that a significant 66 percent of women received alimony amounts below 500 TL.

The report further revealed that 50.7 percent of the alimony determined by the courts goes unpaid. According to the research, 20.7 percent of people that pay alimony fulfilled their obligation by making full payments.

Nazlıaka said the CHP opposes the YRP’s proposal, characterizing it as “exacerbating inequality” and “trapping women in a cycle of poverty and hunger.”

Erkat from the Ankara Bar Association argued the central issue lies in women’s poverty, their confinement to domestic roles, and lack of economic dependence. She said the problem of alimony would not exist if women had the opportunity to fully participate in public life, easily attain economic independence, and realize genuine gender equality.

“At a time when none of these exist and women’s poverty and gender inequality are deepening, limiting the duration of alimony will lead to further victimization that will deepen women’s poverty even more,” Erkat said. “This is not a solution. On the contrary, it will create consequences that further disadvantage women.”

After elections

As Turkey approaches local elections, the YRP’s proposal has not yet been deliberated in parliamentary committees, but this postponement does not imply the matter has been set aside.

On the contrary, Berrin Sönmez said she believes the YRP’s decision to participate in the local elections with its own candidates should be interpreted in connection with this specific issue.

“I attribute their decision to run with independent candidates to the government’s non-acceptance of their demands,” Sönmez told Turkey recap, adding YRP may be exerting pressure on the government.

“After the completion of the local elections, it appears that there will be no immediate obstacle in front of the government,” Sönmez continued. “And unfortunately, issues related to the Civil Code, including the age of marriage, alimony, and polygamy, may resurface. It seems that there will be no significant barriers for the government after March 31.”

Damla Uğantaş edited this article and contributed additional reporting from İstanbul. Oğul Köseoğlu translated this article from Turkish.

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