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Turks up in arms over religious green light for 9-year-old brides

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Religious Affairs Directorate (DIB) — the country's highest Islamic authority — triggered uproar earlier this month by endorsing the view that girls can marry at age 9 and boys at age 12.

The controversy erupted after media scrutiny of a Glossary of Religious Terms, which the DIB ran on its website. For “puberty,” the glossary offered the following explanation:

“Experts of Islamic law have determined the threshold for puberty age as 12 for boys and 9 for girls. Having reached that age, boys enter the stage of progeneration … and girls reach fecundity age, [that is] they become pubescent. … Puberty is the period in which individuals become accountable religiously and obtain the status of adults. Able-minded individuals who reach that stage obtain full conduct capacity. As such, they become answerable to religious precepts such as worship, halal and haram, and [are] liable to punitive, financial and legal obligations.”

The glossary described marriage as a necessary step against “the danger of engaging in illegitimate affairs.” On how the marriage ceremony should be performed, the following is advised for women: “A woman who has reached puberty age can get married without [the presence of] a parent, but the presence of a parent is preferable.”

The DIB’s endorsement of the view that girls who reach puberty at age 9 can marry and bear children drew the fury of women's groups, civil society organizations, opposition parties and some well-known scholars of Islam.

Ihsan Eliacik, a prominent theologian known for his critical views of the government, argued on social media that the DIB was promoting views “outside the Quran” that belong to “old, unquestioned Islamic culture.” The institution is “mentally frozen,” he charged. Referring to the Nisa sura in the Quran, he stressed the holy book spoke of both physical and mental adolescence as a condition for marriage, without mentioning ages.

Prof.Dr. Ali Erbas, Director of Religious Affairs, Turkey

The DIB, for its part, claimed the critics had “distorted” the glossary text to “fabricate” the notion that it was sanctioning early marriages.

In a Jan. 2 statement, it said, “Marrying girls off before they have acquired a sense of responsibility about motherhood and family and before they have reached psychological and biological maturity is not compatible with Islam, which conditions marriage on consent and free will. Our institution has never approved of early marriages and will never do so.”

The statement, however, failed to appease the outrage. In a parliamentary question to the prime minister, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a senior lawmaker for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the DIB was effectively inciting people to violate Turkey’s civil code. Another CHP deputy, Gulay Yedekci, said the texts amounted to “officially approving the sexual abuse [of minors] under the guise of preventing adultery.”

Women's groups held protests denouncing the DIB, while social media users launched a campaign calling for the closure of the institution, which takes one of the lion’s shares from the government budget.

Even before the latest controversy, the DIB was already under fire over fatwas on sexual matters, marriage, women, incest and even games of chance. In December, it said men could divorce via telephone call, fax, text messages and email. Earlier, it had triggered even bigger uproar when, in response to an online question, it opined that a father’s lust for a daughter “by holding her [when she is dressed] in thick clothes or lusting after her by looking at her body” would not have an effect on his marriage.

Amid the storm of criticism, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag ran to the DIB’s defense. In television remarks on Jan. 4, Bozdag maintained that the DIB’s fatwas were based on “the law of God” and were not supposed to comply with the incumbent laws of the state. Lashing out at the critics, he said, “They are asking for fatwas and then they say the fatwas do not comply with the laws. When the DIB issues fatwas, there is only one law it should abide by, and that’s the law of God.”

Yet the DIB’s fatwa on divorce via technological means shows that it can well take into account contemporary developments and adapt them to Islam when it deems it necessary.

Stepping back in the face of the uproar, the DIB removed the Glossary of Religious Terms from its website Jan. 4. The following day it issued a Friday sermon text for mosques across Turkey, preaching against marrying daughters off without their consent.

“Depriving a person of the right to live in dignity and especially subjecting children to various forms of abuse is never permissible in our religion,” the text said. “Forcing children into marriage while they still lack a sense of responsibility toward themselves, the Lord and the people around has no religious and scholarly legitimacy and no ground whatsoever. Trying to marry a girl who is not yet mature enough to grasp the meaning of starting a family and being a wife and a mother is never acceptable.”

The head of the DIB’s Supreme Council of Religious Affairs, Ekrem Keles, told the daily Hurriyet, “The DIB’s view is that girls should not marry before age 17 and boys before age 18. No one should marry their children at the age of 9, 10 or 15. This is contrary to Islam.”

All in all, the DIB seems quite confused on the marriage age. Yet the fact that the public uproar forced the institution to step back offers a glimmer of hope on the prevention of the sexual abuse of children in the name of religion. (100)

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