Did the Turkish government just try to legalize child rape?
If you have been following Turkish news, the odd question in my headline might have occurred to you. My short answer is: No, the government’s intention with a new law it tried to pass last Thursday was not quite that horrific. But it still was a horrific motion, to which millions of citizens, even some government supporters, rightfully objected. Luckily, at least for now, it has been pulled back.
Here is the more detailed story. The controversy began when parliament was discussing a new set of laws on which there was no big controversy. Yet at the last moment, in the last parliamentary session right before midnight, a group of Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies added a one-page addition to the package.
This addition included a very bizarre suggestion: In cases of sexual abuse of children committed before Nov. 16, it said, if the perpetrator marries his victim “without force or threat” then “the sentence would be postponed or the execution of the offence would be adjourned.”
Why did those AKP MPs have this bizarre idea, which was also strongly defended by the justice minister? Well, they referred to a “social reality” in Turkey’s least developed areas such as the rural southeast. Here, despite the law that criminalizes marriage before the age of 17, there are many underage “marriages” where, for example, a 16-year-old boy is wedded to a 15-year-old girl — all with the consent of the families and the community. When the girl goes to hospital to give birth, her age is revealed and the “husband” is arrested and jailed. His “wife” is left to give birth and look after their daughter alone. “There are 3,000 such cases,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ kept arguing, saying the bill was only about addressing their trauma.
However, the same AKP team completely disregarded how the door it opened could be abused in the same pre-modern social setting. For example, there are cases where a grown man (a despicable monster, in fact) has raped a young girl. The family then decides that their “honor” will be “cleansed” only if the poor girl is married to her rapist. This becomes especially easy if the rapist is a wealthy man who can buy his way out. The result is that this monster keeps raping his victim for many years, unless the latter runs away or commits suicide.
While the intention of the proposed law was different, it could have ended up saving such child rapists. It could also have encouraged more of the same evil in the future. That is why the public outcry against the law was fully justified. Notably the three opposition parties in the parliament, including the government’s new sweetheart, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also opposed the motion.
What is even more definitive, in my view, was the reaction from within the AKP universe. First, important female voices in the party, such as Ayşe Böhürler, an AKP founder and columnist for daily Yeni Şafak, condemned the motion. Then KADEM, a women’s organization consisting mostly of religious conservatives who support the government, issued a declaration that criticized the law. When finally President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for “reconsideration” of the law, the AKP had no chance but to backtrack.
This is a good outcome made possible by a good democratic reaction. But Turkey’s problem of “child brides” remains a horrific reality. Also is horrific the underlying patriarchal culture, which often justifies this problem through religion. It is the job of the more enlightened Muslim voices, some of whom made a contribution to this latest debate, to combat this “traditional” evil.