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Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 12:23 GMT
Turkish women get equal rights
Istanbul skyline
The sun is setting on an era when man ruled supreme
By Tabitha Morgan in Istanbul

The new year sees the start of a quiet revolution in Turkish society, when centuries of legally enshrined inequality between the sexes are brought to an end.

When it comes to divorce you... are free to go off with your underwear, that is all

Turkish divorce lawyer

From 1 January, Turkish men are no longer regarded by law as the head of the family.

These latest measures included in sweeping reforms to the country's civil code are described by Turkey's Justice Minister, Hikmet Sami Turk, as the result of no less than 50 years' hard work.

Women are now legally allowed to take a job without first seeking their spouse's permission, and their husbands no longer have the right to decide unilaterally where a couple will live.

But by far the most significant element of the new legislation is the provision that married women are entitled to an equal share of joint assets in the event of divorce.

Far-reaching consequences

In a society where many men regard it as a matter of personal honour not to allow their wives to work, this is going to have far-reaching implications.

Turkish woman in traditional dress
The changes will not apply to 17m women already married
Divorce lawyer Janin Arin says reform is long overdue.

"This is very important, because usually when women are married, their husbands do not want their wife work out of the house. They will say that he is terribly in love with her, and he does not want her to get more tired.

"Of course, women can easily give up working out of the house, and at the end of 20 or 30 years, she becomes just nothing."

When it comes to divorce, Janin Arin says, husbands point out that wives who stayed at home contributed nothing to the family finances.

"So you have nothing, you can just go - you are free to go off with your underwear, that is all."

"You did not do anything. What did you do?." So you have nothing, you can just go - you are free to go off with your underwear, that is all."

Not enough

But many women feel that the new law does not go far enough.

It does not automatically apply retrospectively, so 17 million Turkish women - who are already married - will be no better off should they wish to get divorced.

And Turkey remains a country full of contradictions.

Although the percentage of women lawyers, doctors and stockbrokers is higher than in many Western nations, huge sectors of Turkish society - particularly the rural areas - remain deeply conservative.

Last month, one education authority noted particularly high numbers of schoolgirl absentees in the western Turkish town of Achela.

An investigation revealed that the children, some of them as young as 10 years old, were no longer in school because they had been married off by their families, and many of them now had children of their own.

It is going to take more than just new legislation to change attitudes that are rooted firmly in the traditions of eastern Mediterranean and Muslim societies.

These latest reforms to Turkey's legal system are unlikely to have much impact on the lives of the children of Achela.

See also:

26 Nov 01 | Media reports
Turkish women score victory for equality
13 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Turkey
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