Istanbul, Turkey—Nebiye A. crossed the Bosphorus on a ferry, far from the home and life she once had. On her way to a meeting, Nebiye’s short hair—once wrapped in a headscarf—blows in the wind. In this chaotic, ancient city of 15 million people, Nebiye feels free. But beyond the sea, in the hinterlands of Anatolia, not long ago, Nebiye had another life as a married woman, one much closer to that of her mother, and her mother before her.
Petite, with a shy smile and freckles, Nebiye, who said that revealing her last name would put her family’s dignity at risk, married at the age of twenty-two, right after graduating from university. Two years later, she left her husband, which meant standing up to her family as well as braving the stigma of divorce in Turkey. “My father told me that he would disown me because I was doing something that God does not agree with. My mom said that she would disown me if I went to live by myself in Istanbul after my divorce,” Nebiye told me, as she drew on a cigarette.
Now six years later, Nebiye, thirty, is no longer in contact with her family. But she has gained a freedom and sense of empowerment that is emblematic of what women are achieving in today’s Turkey and across much of the Islamic world.
Divorce—though originally sanctioned more than 1,400 years ago by Islamic law—is still widely viewed in Muslim societies as a subversive act that breaks up the family. Women who seek divorce can often find themselves ostracized and treated as immoral. Despite such taboos and restrictions, however, divorce rates are rising across Islamic countries, even in ultra-conservative places like Afghanistan.
Turkey, in particular, is seeing a record number of divorces, as both women and men are looking for a way out of unhappy and sometimes abusive marriages. Over the past fifteen years, the divorce rate has risen from under 15 percent of marriages to nearly a quarter of them. Domestic violence is almost always cited as a leading reason by Turkish women seeking a divorce. This is true even outside urban areas, which have also seen a slight growth in divorce cases; increasingly, women are willing to seek divorces in smaller, religious towns such as Konya, in central Anatolia, where Nebiye was raised. More of these girls and women also now have access to education and online information.
Ipek Bozkurt, an outspoken women’s rights activist and Istanbul-based divorce lawyer, told me that one reason for this change in social norms is that more women are working, and they are more aware of their rights. “They’re so fed up with their marriages and the treatment they receive, the treatment their kids receive, all the physical and psychological pressure that they have suffered,” she said. “They’re just willing to let that marriage go.”
Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country governed by secular laws. Women here have equal rights to property and are eligible for alimony after divorce. But over its seventeen-yearslong rule, Turkey’s conservative Justice and Development Party or AKP government has pushed a strong family values agenda: women should get married and have three kids, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey provides incentives for married couples such as a tax break, and women who work part-time can get subsidized childcare. Despite such measures—and to the government’s dismay—the rate of marriage has declined by 27 percent over the AKP’s tenure, and women are choosing to marry at an older age. In large part, this is an unintended consequence of Erdoğan’s economic policies, which produced a long boom from 2002 to 2012 that saw women entering the urban workforce in unprecedented numbers.
In November, speaking to a roomful of his women supporters at a “gender justice” summit, Erdoğan boasted of presiding over an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce, up from 28 percent in 2002 to 38 percent today. At the same conference, Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk, the minister of family, labor, and social services, insisted that the government was working hard to encourage marriage and prevent divorce, but she balanced her message with an appeal to women’s growing desire for independence. “Our primary goal,” she said, “is to minimize and solve the problems encountered by the family and to protect its unity without ignoring the rights of the individuals.”
Her department used to be known as the ministry for women and family; that name had changed in 2011—a move intended as a snub, in fact, to women’s rights advocates and to bolster the family values agenda before a general election. At the November summit, Erdoğan’s eldest daughter, Esra Albayrak, criticized Western women’s rights as self-indulgent. She echoed her father’s message that Turkey needs to find its own solutions to gender issues, with a focus on women’s traditional roles as mothers, sisters, and daughters. Albayrak and her conservative allies are fighting a rearguard action against the social changes that are making divorce more acceptable and easier. And last year, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül defended Turkish men who’ve been complaining about what they see as the injustice of being obliged to make lifelong alimony payments to their ex-wives.
The AKP commissioned a parliamentary report on how to tackle the rising divorce rate. When it was published, in May 2016, one of the document’s main recommendations was that if a married woman required extended police protection, such as a restraining order against her abusive husband, she would have to provide proof of his violence. Other proposals included advising judges presiding in divorce cases to refer couples to marriage counseling and that alimony payments should end after ten years.
The report received withering criticism from Turkish feminists and women’s rights activists, and none of its recommendations were implemented—although the report did receive widespread coverage. Women’s groups argued that lower income women with minimum wage jobs or single mothers cannot make ends meet without alimony. According to Taylan Acar, an assistant professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University who has studied divorce and marriage, the divorce rate remains moderate and there’s no crisis of the family in Turkey. But “it appears that [the government] has convinced the media and the society that divorce rates have reached crisis levels,” he wrote me.
Changes to the way official statistics are gathered have led to disputed assessments of how rapidly the divorce rate is going up. The government refers to data that appear to show sharp increases from 2000 to 2010, but independent experts argue that more recent administrative data show only a steady but moderate rise—and far from the crisis some in government describe.
Following the report, the government hired more marriage guidance counselors, though critics say that these government counselors, some of whom are imams or clerics, sometimes send wives back to abusive husbands. Bozkurt, the lawyer, said the government is in denial about the real reasons behind domestic violence. “Women’s organizations say that there is an increase in divorce because there is an increase in domestic violence,” she said. “On the other hand, the government says: since the women want to get a divorce, domestic violence has increased.”
It is true that femicide has grown steadily in Turkey over the last decade, with more than 2,000 women killed by their partners. Feminists say that the number of murders is up because more women are resisting inequality and abuse in their marriage, and reporting domestic violence more. Unfortunately, some men are retaliating with deadly violence, said Gülsüm Kav, the co-founder of We Will Stop Femicides, a women’s group that advocates for victims’ families and independently counts women homicides in Turkey. But the solution, activists argue, is not what the government says—that women should stay in abusive marriages and try to work things out with their husbands—but legal reform.
The problem in Turkish law is that the burden of proof in domestic violence cases falls on the victims, who, the women’s rights advocates argue, are treated like pariahs in the justice system. If a man claims that his partner cursed him in an altercation or “provoked” him in some way, the judge all too often gives him, not her, the benefit of the doubt. Chloe Fairweather, a British filmmaker, is making a film about Turkish women who were beaten and shot after leaving their partners, Dying to Divorce.
“While there is often legislation to protect women, it is not always implemented,” she said. “There are often cultural barriers, too. Despite obvious violence, some of the women we met face disapproval from their families who feel [the women] are to blame for the violence they have experienced.”
In 2017, in spite of protests from secularists and feminists, lawmakers passed a measure to permit imams to wed couples, a move that opponents say inches the country toward Sharia law, institutionalizing inequality in marriage and divorce. Islamic practices such as polygamy, marriage under age eighteen, and a man’s right to divorce his wife simply by saying, “I divorce you,” three times, are outlawed under Turkey’s secular Constitution, but some couples, especially in conservative rural Anatolia, still live by these beliefs. Supporters of the new law tried to argue that it could help to decrease the number of child-bride marriages, which account for about 15 percent of marriages in the country, by increasing transparency and government oversight of religious weddings.
Nebiye left her home and religious family in Konya in 2008 to study theology at a private university in Istanbul. As a woman who wore a headscarf, Nebiye could not, at that time, attend a public university because Turkey’s secular Kemalist governments had outlawed their wearing at government institutions. The AKP overturned that law in 2010, the year before Nebiye graduated. Then she landed a job at a literary magazine, where she met the man she would marry.
“He was kind, intelligent, and not authoritarian like the other guys,” she told me. With their families’ approval, the couple were married—and moved away from Istanbul after he was hired as a university professor in a remote town near the Armenian border.
There were hints of problems from the beginning of their relationship, she says—he could be jealous—but the main reason Nebiye eventually wanted out of the marriage was sexual incompatibility. “In secular families, they [both men and women] can talk about sex and even experience it before marriage, but in conservative families, they don’t even talk about it with their mothers,” she explained. “Also, sex is usually for men’s pleasure. Women are just supposed to procreate.”
Nebiye eventually asked for a divorce, and her husband eventually agreed; their court proceedings at least were easy because they didn’t have children or property to dispute. But his family harassed her: her mother-in-law insisted the devil had come between them and her father-in-law would call late at night trying to change her mind.
The hardest part for Nebiye, though, was confronting her own family. Even now, she seemed uncomfortable talking about their negative reaction. She lit up another cigarette and let out a nervous laugh.
She moved back to Istanbul where her friends raised money for her to live on until she got a job. She also stopped wearing the headscarf she had worn since the age of twelve. This was the last straw for her parents, who renounced her. “Of course, I miss my family,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s right for them to have disowned me in the name of God.”
Today, Nebiye is studying for a master’s in new media and working as an activist for labor rights. She feels a loneliness that comes with being single in Turkey and has trouble trusting men. She keeps in touch with her older sister, but aches for losing her parents in exchange for her freedom.
“The more educated women become, the more likely they want partners who are going to match and satisfy them not only economically, but also emotionally and intellectually,” explained Acar, the sociologist. “If not, they postpone marriage or choose to forgo [it] altogether.” It’s not just the divorce rate that is going up; over the last decade, the average age of marriage has risen from twenty-three to twenty-five for women.
Not all Turkish women have found Nebiye’s path open to them. I met Nursel Öztürk, a Canadian-Turkish anthropology researcher, at an Istanbul shopping mall on a rainy day. Her field of study actually concerns the part Islamic traditions play in divorce carried out in the secular courts. Her interest is more than academic, perhaps—she had sought divorce herself, but withdrew her petition because the process was affecting her mental health and threatening her custody of the children. Today, the forty-one-year-old continues to live with her husband, a law professor in Istanbul, in a tense and unhappy silence.
“Women are sick and tired of being second-class citizens. I wanted to be treated like I matter,” she said, with visible anger. Öztürk grew up in a secular home in Toronto, though her family made frequent visits to Turkey. When she turned seventeen, her father—without consulting his teenaged daughter—approved her marriage to her current husband, who was raised in Turkey. After the couple married, they also moved to Canada, and had four children. Öztürk studied as she raised her kids.
“I could be educated but had to do and think what my husband wanted,” she said. “I didn’t have any decision-making power with our children’s morals or education. Diapers and food were my job.”
Her husband eventually wanted to move back to Istanbul and work as an academic and, despite her misgivings, they did. The move put more stress on her marriage, and finally, after twenty-four years, she filed for divorce—though, after getting bogged down in disputes, she eventually abandoned the effort. In Öztürk’s embittered view, Turkey’s secular tradition pays lip service to women’s rights but the reality falls far short.
For Tanyar Ablak, a fit fifty year-old who runs a small business in Istanbul selling honey and dairy, things have gone more smoothly. He has been divorced twice, and both times the process was easy. “Everyone thinks that the woman is the victim in Turkey because she’s the one who is excluded and beaten up, who’s left alone—and a lot of times, it is like that,” he said. “But men can be oppressed in the process as well.” He meant that marriage places so much emphasis on the family that it doesn’t allow for individual development. “Unfortunately, this is our tradition,” he said.
Aware, though, of his privilege as a man in Turkey, where there is little pressure on men to contribute in the home, he is trying to do things differently. He has a girlfriend, but lives across the hall from his ex-wife, who’s also the mother of his son. They’re co-parenting and sometimes they eat the meals that he cooks together as a family.
As the country urbanizes, it is struggling to manage its relationship to modernity within the traditional institution of marriage. Turkey’s AKP government is threatened by liberal ideas, but change is coming—has come already.
“Women will not take it anymore,” Nebiye said.
Özge Sebzeci and Stella Chiarelli contributed reporting to this story, which also appears as an audio report distributed by PRI.