A shameful debate on incest in Turkey

A shameful debate on incest in Turkey

It all started with a news report two weeks ago. A half-famous, minor jet-set TV personality called Murat Başoğlu was “caught” by paparazzi in a boat off the Aegean coast cavorting with a woman who is not his wife.

It was later understood that the women in the boat was actually his niece, Burcu Başoğlu Kabadayı, who is also married. She admitted that they had spent nights together with her uncle, after which her husband and the wife of Başoğlu opened divorce cases demanding compensation. A prosecutor has also opened an investigation accusing them of “inappropriate behavior in public.”

The scandal has triggered a debate on “incest” in Turkey. The man in question is 50 years old and the woman is 35, and from the photos it looks like there is no question of this being a “forced relationship” or one that could be described as abuse.

But the incident has exposed a stark reality: There is no “incest” offence separately and clearly defined in the Turkish Penal Code. Article 102 of the penal code states that if a sexual assault has taken place between relatives, up to the third degree, the punishment for the offender could be increased by half. And even in that case charges can only be leveled if the victim files a complaint. Article 129 of the Turkish Civil Code also says marriage between relatives of second degree, including adopted children, is forbidden. But it says nothing specific about incest itself. 

When revisions were made to the Penal Code back in 2012, a number of prominent lawyers, including Prof. Dr. Faruk Erem, said there should be a separate article to address the question of incest. But lawmakers did not take this into account.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has revealed the opinion of the issue according to the Islamic holy book the Quran. “For cousins to marry is at most permissible but it is not recommended. For nieces or nephews to marry uncles and aunts is haram [forbidden] according to Islam,” Diyanet acting head Ekrem Keleş said. But again this was only addressing the wrongdoing in terms of marriage; it did not address the act of incest itself.

Hürriyet columnist Melis Alphan recently drew attention to another dimension of the incest story. Quoting Turkish Women Associations Federation (TKDF) head Canan Güllü, Alphan wrote that the incest rate in Turkey could be as high as 40 percent, adding that more should be done to protect children.

Another Hürriyet columnist, Ahmet Hakan, criticized Alphan for basing her comments on “made up figures.” He said 40 percent is an “overly exaggerated number” (though he gave no reference to support this claim), and also stressed that a distinction should be made between “voluntary” relationships and forced relationships. 

In the question of incest, the concept of “voluntary” could effectively apply to younger victims who cannot file a legal complaint. After all, it is not practically possible for young victims of incest to complain about their older parents or relatives abusing them. 

A number of women’s associations have blasted Hakan, but his column had already helped to trigger an overwhelmingly macho social media attack campaign targeting Alphan. Defending herself, she has stressed that the figures she quoted were taken from a TKDF report, which was also submitted to parliament. She also noted that the global average was 30 percent. 

However, the mentioned report was never fully made public, nor information was given on its methodology. The directors of two public opinion companies I contacted said they could not undersign the findings of the report without knowing its methodology, adding the number seemed to be too high according to the statistics. But it is not about the percentages actually, it is about facing the reality.

As the debate raged on, Ayşe Arman, another Hürriyet columnist, made reference to a forced incest case.

 Reporting the case without citing names, she noted that a father was sentenced to 24 years in jail after repeatedly abusing his daughters. His wife, who is also his cousin but was forced to marry him at a young age - without being able to file a complaint, so “voluntarily” according to the Turkish Penal Code - managed to escape with her daughters. She eventually managed to file a complaint against her husband, but the courts (which in today’s Turkey do not hesitate to arrest journalists in the blink of an eye), opted not to arrest him during the trials. As a result, the man is now at large and the mother and daughters are forced to live in fear, currently receiving psychiatric treatment.

“Stop debating the percentages of incest. Look at the real issue,” wrote Arman.

The real issue is about being able to protect young and oppressed people in society, whether or not they are in a family. That is why it is important for all of us - both in Turkey and elsewhere - to face up to the truth first of all. And that is why what Alphan wrote was important and courageous.