The Campaign for Full Gender Equality in the Civil Code
The new Turkish Civil Code, which abolished the supremacy of men in marriage and thus established the full equality of men and women in the family, was approved by the Turkish Parliament on November 22, 2001, and came into effect on January 1, 2002. The old Turkish Civil Code of 1926 was translated and adapted from the Swiss Civil Code of the time and included several articles reducing women to a subordinate position in the family. For example, the husband was defined as the head of the marriage union, thus granting him the final say over the choice of domicile and children. The new Code sets the equal division of property acquired during marriage as a default property regime for property aqcuired after the new code went in effect, assigning an economic value to women’s hitherto invisible labor for the well-being of the family household. It also sets 18 as the legal minimum age for marriage for both women and men (it was previously 17 for men and 15 for women), gives the same inheritance rights to children born outside marriage as those born within marriage, and allows single parents to adopt children. In addition, in October 2001, Article 41 of the Constitution was amended, redefining the family as an entity that is "based on equality between spouses.” The new article reads: "The family is the foundation of Turkish society and is based on equality between spouses."
The rise of a new strong feminist movement after the 1980s resulted in significant gains for women and paved the way for the final enactment of the Civil Code reform. In the 1990s, the feminist movement had succeeded in achieving the annulment of Article 159 of the Civil Code, which had stated that women needed their husbands’ consent to work outside the home; and a new law on domestic violence enabling a survivor of domestic violence to file a court case for a "protection order" against the perpetrator of the violence. In 1994, a commission was formed to prepare a new draft of the Civil Code. In the same year, WWHR-New Ways initiated an international letter and fax campaign demanding full equality for women in the Civil Code. Hundreds of NGOs from all over the world took part in the campaign, demonstrating their support for our demands. Turkey’s commitments to CEDAW were repeated in the UN Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 and in the second and third combined reports to CEDAW in 1997. A new draft law was finally prepared by the commission and presented to the National Assembly in September 1998. However, due to the general elections held in April 1999, a new commission had to be formed to finalize the draft code and its enactment law.
The discussion of the draft law in the Justice Commission of the National Assembly started in April 2000 and continued until June 2001. Several reforms met strong resistance from religious conservatives and nationalists in Parliament. They argued that equality between men and women would ‘create anarchy and chaos in the family’ and thus ‘threaten the foundations of the Turkish nation.’ Thus, at the beginning of 2001, 126 women’s groups from all around the country joined together to initiate a major campaign. Soon after the start of the campaign, the most controversial issue became the reform of the clause regulating matrimonial property.
The original draft of the new Civil Code foresaw that all matrimonial property should be split 50/50. The nationalists and the religious conservatives insisted on the separate property regime, which has been the rule in Turkey since 1926. As a result of the campaign initiated and coordinated by women’s groups, the opposing forces had to accept the new property regime, which entitles women to an equal share of the assets accumulated throughout the duration of the marriage.
However, due to a last minute law formulated by the opposition parties, this clause was deemed to be valid only for property acquired after January 1, 2002. Women’s groups are still continuing their advocacy efforts for the annulment of this law.
The campaign, which was made possible by cooperation and coordination between 126 women’s groups representing different sectors of society, played a crucial role in overcoming the resistances. The new Civil Code has taken a new approach to the family and to women’s role in the family. The old legal approach, which assigned women a legislatively subordinate position in the family with rights and duties defined in respect to the husband, has been abandoned in favor of one that defines the family as a union based on equal partnership. Consequently, this new concept is also reflected in the language of the new Code. The terms “the wife” and “the husband” are replaced by “the spouses.” Moreover, the legal language has been considerably simplified and out-of-date terminology replaced by comprehensible, modern terms, rendering the law more accessible for everyone.
The new approach to the family is reflected in several changes:
- The husband is no longer the head of the family; spouses are equal partners, jointly running the matrimonial union with equal decision-making powers;
- Spouses have equal rights over the family abode;
- Spouses have equal rights over property acquired during marriage;
- Spouses have equal representative powers;
- The concept of “illegitimate children,” which was used for children born out of wedlock, has been abolished; the custody of children born outside marriage belongs to their mothers.