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Women Scorn Turkish Marriage Proposal

Bid to revive a ban on adultery stirs concerns about Islamic rule, 'honor killings' and discord with the EU.

September 04, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — A proposal by Turkey's ruling party to revive a law criminalizing adultery has provoked a storm of protest from women's groups and fueled accusations that the government is seeking to steer this officially secular but predominantly Muslim country toward Islamic rule.

The opposition Republican People's Party has said it will try to quash the measure but has little chance of doing so in parliament, where the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoys a majority. Women's groups have vowed to protest in front of parliament when it convenes Sept. 14.

The session will debate other proposed changes to the penal code that are meant to enhance Turkey's democratic credentials to meet the standards of the European Union, which Ankara hopes to join.

Erdogan has won strong praise from EU leaders in recent months for reforms that include easing bans on the Kurdish language. But EU officials say Turkey needs to extend religious minorities' freedom of worship and expand the rights of women.

The proposal to criminalize adultery comes as the EU's commissioner of enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, is set to visit next week to assess Turkey's readiness to begin membership negotiations. The EU is expected to release its report by Oct. 6, and a decision on starting talks will be made in December.

"The State Is Entering Our Bedroom," read a banner headline Friday in the liberal-leaning daily newspaper Radikal.

Feminists fear the proposal will encourage so-called honor killings in which women are killed for allegedly tainting family reputations by associating with unrelated men.

Scores of Turkish women perish in honor killings every year, says Leyla Pervizat, an Istanbul-based academic.

"Criminalizing adultery is no different than stoning a woman to death for adultery," activist Hayriye Ozdemir Aytekin told Radikal.

"Prosecutors will be going from house to house to inspect who's sleeping with whom," wrote Ece Temelkuran, a columnist for the newspaper Milliyet.

Adultery was illegal in Turkey until 1996, when the Constitutional Court overturned the law, saying it discriminated against women. Under the earlier measure, men were deemed adulterers only if it was proved that they had been involved in a prolonged affair, whereas women could be charged if they had been unfaithful even once. Adultery carried a maximum sentence of three years in prison, but the penalty was rarely applied.

Under the proposed law, men and women would be prosecuted on equal terms and would face the same three years in prison.

Erdogan defended the move Thursday, saying it would help eliminate infidelity. "We believe that this is a step aimed at preserving human honor," he said.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the proposal was made after sustained pressure from women who allegedly support the jailing of adulterers. He declined to say whether, or how, the law would apply to thousands of Turkish men, including some lawmakers, who have wed more than one woman in Islamic ceremonies that were outlawed by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, more than 80 years ago.

Analysts said the government was acting under pressure from its conservative constituents, who have been angered by Erdogan's failure to deliver on promises to ease bans on Islamic head scarves in government offices and schools.

"Erdogan is, in effect, saying the government will supervise public morals," said Emin Sirin, an independent lawmaker. "Such behavior is totally incompatible with Western thinking and can only strengthen the hand of Europeans who oppose Turkey's membership" in the EU.

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