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Women's Rights, Turkish Style

New York Times Editorial
September 12, 2004

As part of a slate of reforms aimed at securing membership in the European Union, Turkey's ruling party has proposed a major overhaul of the country's criminal code. There is much value in the effort. Prompted by a coalition of women's groups, it includes stronger laws against rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, several other provisions affecting women are dangerously regressive, seeking to codify in law beliefs and practices that reflect the party's own conservative Islamic roots rather than the European Union's modern vision of human rights.

The most objectionable laws would criminalize adultery, allow a loophole whereby men could continue to receive reduced sentences for "honor killings" of female relatives, penalize consensual sexual relations between teenagers aged 15 to 18 and neglect to explicitly ban and criminalize virginity testing. The adultery clause is especially backward, given that Turkey decriminalized adultery - for men, in 1996; for women, in 1998 - on the grounds that the law discriminated against women. As for honor killings, the new code would prohibit reduced sentences for "killings in the name of customary law," but Turkish rights' advocates say the wording is more likely to apply to vendettas in which a family decides to avenge a crime, and not necessarily to the murder of a wife by a husband who feels dishonored by her behavior.

The proposed laws could work together in a pernicious way. If adultery or teenage sex is a crime, they could be interpreted by a judge as a provocation. If a victim provokes violence, the perpetrator generally has a chance for a reduced sentence.

A recent report by Amnesty International estimated that at least one-third of Turkish women are victims of domestic violence in which they are "hit, raped and, in some cases, killed or forced to commit suicide." Turkey must demonstrate a political willingness to end such abuses. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, should postpone sending the new penal code to Parliament, which he is scheduled to do this week, until his party officials revise it - deleting laws against consensual sex and including explicit protections for women. Otherwise, he is handing Europeans who scorn Turkey's European Union membership bid a big reason to vote no in December, when the union will decide whether to start formal accession talks with Turkey. In that unfortunate event, Mr. Erdogan would have no one to blame but himself.

 
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