Polygamy in Turkey

Slow Evolutionary Change

Although long ousted in Turkey, about one million people are currently still living in polygamous relationships. It is especially in the country's south-east region that this cultural habit resists abolition. Dorian Jones reports

photo: Markus Kirchgessner
"If society considers it normal, how can you enforce a law?" – In south-east Turkey it is still a long way from de jure to de facto abolition of polygamy

​​The Demir family in the village Bismali, in south-east Turkey, is only one of the many families in the region practising polygamy. Unsurprisingly, female and male views on the subject differ considerably:

"I got married when I was 27, it was an arranged marriage, I only met myhusband once before we wed," Ms. Demir tells us. "But we were happy with our eight children. But then one day my husband went away for a few days and returned with another wife. I could not believe she was much younger than me. I reacted very badly, I became so sick with unhappiness, I was in hospital for a long time. It is very difficult for me to accept."

"Me and my father were on bad terms, we had a big argument, so I left home and got another wife," Mr. Demir begins to explain his point of view. "Some relatives of mine living in nearby Syria arranged everything. I have to admit my first wife was not happy; she did not speak to me for a long while, but now she accepts it and we are all happy. They work together and look after me, this is the way it is here, and there are so many men that have two, three or even four wives... There is nothing to do here for so much of the time; you need to fill the time. One wife is just not enough."

In many cases divorce is not an option

At the Women for Women's Rights Center, they are only too aware of such stories. They have been campaigning for the government to do more to help woman trapped in such relationships. But Nucan Akpinar says that for most women caught in polygamous relations like in other abusive relationships, divorce is simply not an option.

"A lot of women aren't even in a position to divorce (the husband), even if they hate their husbands, because they are economically and socially dependent on their husbands, and because they do not have any home and because they don't have any place to go. There aren't even places like shelters or legal counseling services for these women to go to. So if the government really wants to do anything for women, first all of we need shelters."

Women protesting for refuge centers

In the past demonstrations for refuge centers received little attention from the government, but that has all changed. For with the EU demanding that Ankara takes seriously women's rights, the government has committed itself to opening women's centers in all cites and towns.

Turkey's European aspirations are providing a crucial momentum for reform according to Nimet Cubukcu. She is one of the few woman members of parliament for the governing AK Party. But she argues that woman refuges on their own will do little to challenge the problem of polygamy faced by women.

Evolutionary change

"There are over a million people in Turkey living in polygamous relationships," Cubukcu says. "This is a huge problem which a few refuge centers will not able to solve. You cannot change hundreds of years of tradition and history in one day. The biggest challenge is to get people to enforce the law. But if society considers it normal, how can you enforce a law? You cannot arrest everybody. It has to be an evolutionary change – through changing the mentality, through education, and this process will be expedited by Europe. People realize we have to change to become a European Union member, so this is helping the process."

But many of her party supporters are raising reservations about this modernizing drive. Among them is Emre Akif. He is a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper. Akif says while many in Europe criticize Turkey's traditions, there has to be understanding on both sides.

"Turkish society values are very different from the European western culture, we cannot change but every government official who makes any statement about this says there are no differences between our culture and European culture. They try to convey the image to public opinion that we don't have any differences in relation to Europe and European culture or European morality values or something else. We don't have to be the same, we have our own culture and historical religious values which we have to keep – always; even if we join the European Union or not."

Change being led by women

But the drive for change is not only coming from European but also from the heart of Turkey's traditional society, and it's being led by women.

Sunnu Kepoglu is talking to her villagers. She is responsible for 25 villages and their 30,000 inhabitants who belong to her clan. She is unique in Turkey, being the only women clan leader or "agar".

They own most of the land here and as for centuries before dominate rural life. The clan structure is blamed for being largely responsible for maintaining the status quo. But Kepoglu who has had to fight against prejudice herself, is now using her power to challenge the old traditions of polygamy.

The importance of being educated

"It is all about education; the woman's position is based on education. When they feel economic strength, when they trust themselves, then they can change the situation. Women here are held back not only by men but also by themselves. I fight and fight to get girls to school. I invest all my money in building and repairing schools and insist that girls attend. Even if a woman reads a newspaper or book, it will enlighten her."

Here in south-east Turkey, where the cultures of Europe and the Arab world meet, Brussels seems a world away. But it is here where the benefits of EU membership could be most felt – especially to women. For if Ankara is to realize its EU dream, then it has to be prepared to challenge age-old traditions which have and continue to discriminate against women.

Dorian Jones


See also our dossier on Turkey and Europe

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