Tens of thousands of women, angry at what they say is the government's latest step to “Islamify” Turkey, recently signed a petition against the rise of religious marriages in lieu of civil unions.

The petition, which has 100,000 signatures so far, responds to the Constitutional Court’s May ruling removing the requirement that religious marriage first be formalized in court. Half a million Turkish women have been married in unregistered religious ceremonies, and among low-income families, as many as one in seven.

“In Turkish law, [civil] marriage is the only thing that protects the rights of the woman to divorce, alimony, and child support,” said Dilara Gurcu, who launched the petition through Erktolia, a women’s rights organization she co-founded. Gurcu warned, “This will increase the child brides who are getting married before 18. This is also going to increase polygamy.”

As part of broad reforms to create a secular state, in 1926 Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made civil marriage compulsory. Until the recent ruling, the penal code recognized the continued prevalence and risks of religious marriage among the Muslim majority population. The Turkish Criminal Code stated that a man and woman who married at a mosque without first being wed in court faced jail time of up to six months, as did the presiding imam.

In conservative parts of Turkey, many people still consider unregistered religious marriages formal. Now, with the deterrent stripped away by the court, religious marriage is likely to proliferate.

The ruling came just before the June parliamentary elections in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hoped his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would gain a supermajority. The AKP lost its majority, and after failing to build a coalition government, has called for reelections this November.

“The ruling is all about the AKP’s politics on women…our government in many statements emphasizes that women and men are not equal,” said Ayca Akpek, a lawyer affiliated with the main opposition party.

The AKP leadership has spent the last several years appointing judges to the Constitutional Court that share the party’s conservative Islamic values and has made statements diminishing women’s place as individuals in society. AKP official rhetoric reinforces the notion of women as dependent caretakers, ranging from Erdogan’s proclamations that women are entrusted to men by God and should bear three to five children to the government’s gifts of gold to women in which increasing amounts are given for each additional newborn. And according to Erdogan, women are not equal to men; Islam, “has defined a position for women: motherhood.” 

Conservatives explain the court’s ruling as part of a broader shift in Turkey toward religious freedom, in line with allowing headscarves for women at school and work, and last year for girls as young as nine. According to Hamit Yelken, deputy secretary general of the Constitutional Court, the ruling on religious marriage stems from respect for “private, independent, freedom of religion and conscience. It would be a double standard if they [religious couples] were not allowed to do this.”

Yet other countries that support the private decision to cohabitate without a civil ceremony—such as Scotland, Croatia, and elsewhere in Europe—enshrine through their legal systems a range of rights for both women and men in established relationships. For example, in these countries the law ensures inheritance and property rights and alimony rulings in cases of separation.

Further, working groups formed by the United Nations on minimum age of marriage laws recommend compulsory registration of all marriages. Governments, the UN states, should conform "regional, customary and religious law with federal/civil law." The UN warns that freedom of religion should not be used to justify or allow child marriage. 

According to Dr. Ilknur Yuksel of Haceteppe University, Turkish women may have entered into unregistered Islamic marriages because they were unaware of their rights or because of pressure from their families, especially if they were too young to marry legally. Her analysis of household data from 2008 showed that of the women surveyed who had ever been married, almost a third reported being wed before 18 years of age. Of a 2013 survey of almost 10,000 women currently under analysis, Dr. Yuksel said initial results indicate that the percentage of early marriages appears similar.

Although the AKP has passed some legislation that improves protections for women, there are still gaps in Turkish legal code and its implementation related to women and minors. Family law stipulates that a person must have “fulfilled 17 years of age” to be legally married, yet the court can make exceptions for 16-year-olds. Regarding the new ruling on religious marriage, former Minister of Family and Social Policies Aysenur Islam acknowledged that “we will have to work [on new legislation] to prevent children under the age of 18 to be married off through unofficial marriages.” Read moreover, nothing in the Turkish penal code prohibits polygamous religious marriage (Yuksel’s 2008 data showed 200,000 such marriages in the country), and although the law carries jail time for statutory rape, human rights advocates say that offenders are rarely prosecuted.

Structural and cultural inequalities drive and compound the problem of religious marriage, especially in rural, lower-income areas. Turkey has the lowest female labor force participation in Europe, and is ranked 132 out of 142 countries in women’s economic participation and opportunity. In areas where there is little precedent for women attaining economic independence, many families look to marriage as the only way to secure a young woman’s future.

Because women face multiple forms of inequality, Dr. Bertil Emrah Oder, Dean of Koc Law School, says they need a robust response that gives priority to empowerment through “real policies combating gender stereotypes in the fields of education, vocational training, employment, political participation, and of course a structured social policy for transformation of religious marriages to official ones.”

Akpek, the opposition lawyer, is hoping to force a change in Turkish law by filing a suit against the Turkish government with the European Court of Human Rights. She argues for the strict protection of civil marriage and the rights it affords women, even if through the penal code.

“You may think jail time is an extraordinary measure—but think about the extraordinary violations of women’s rights,” she said.

Reporting was supported by the Fuller Project for International Reporting