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On Dec. 3, 2022, the Turkish journalists Timur Soykan and Murat Agirel, reporters for the left-wing newspaper BirGun, broke a piercing story that shook Turkey: Yusuf Ziya Gumusel, the founder of the Hiranur Foundation, which is connected to the Ismailaga sect, a prominent Sunni religious community in Turkey, had allegedly married off his daughter, referred to as H.K.G., 18 years ago — when she was 6 years old. The groom was Kadir Istekli, a 29-year-old member of the same sect.
The story was well-founded, based on a criminal indictment. H.K.G., who was born in Istanbul in 1998, is today divorced, trying to start life anew while taking care of her own child. On Nov. 30, 2020, she filed an official complaint, though no lawsuit was filed until the fall of 2022. She told the prosecutor that she was raped and abused throughout her childhood. She accused her parents of condoning her rape. She also gave the prosecutor a recorded conversation between her and her then-“husband,” which confirmed her sexual abuse regularly since their “marriage” had begun.
Consequently, the indictment, issued on Oct. 30 by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, demanded that the parents, Yusuf Ziya Gumusel and Fatma Gumusel, both charged with the crime of sexual abuse of a child, be sentenced to 22 years and six months each. The ex-husband, Istekli, was additionally charged with sexual assault, with the prosecutor demanding a combined sentence of 67 years and 10 months.
Since the case was made public, a new wave of outrage against the crimes and the environment in some religious cults where such human rights violations have recurred has resulted in a national crisis. Politicians and public officials from both the governing and opposition parties condemned the abuse and called for accountability for the perpetrators. The story also raised, once again, the question of whether Islam permits child marriages or at least whether certain traditional Muslim communities believe it does.
Meanwhile, some conservative circles in Turkey, most of which support the ruling party, have cast doubts on the veracity of the case, calling it a “conspiracy against Islam.” Feeding their suspicions, in statements broadcast on TV5’s YouTube channel, H.K.G.’s siblings denied the accusations against their family. Yet, in mid-December, both the husband and the father were arrested. When their arrests came, under the auspices of a pro-Islamic government, many conservatives began to revise their public stances.
Turkey’s top religious official and the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbas, weighed in on Dec. 19. “Forcing girls into marriage without reaching the maturity for starting a family and trying to legitimize it based on the religion of Islam is a great and grave sin,” he said. He called for a united fight against child abuse and fiercely rejected any connection of child brides with the concept of marriage in Islam.
“Let’s also be vigilant,” he said, “against those who try to associate a highly sensitive issue with Islam and Muslims with subliminal messages using isolated events as an excuse.” Erbas added that the legal minimum age of marriage in Turkey is 18, calling it “both a religiously necessary behavior and the most basic condition for ensuring lasting peace and happiness in the family.”
Turkey is of course not the only country that deals with serious human right violations like child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) or child abuse. But there is a well-established pattern of chronic recurrence.
Data from the Turkish Justice Ministry show that, of the 29,822 court decisions on child sexual abuse cases in 2021, 16,161 were convictions. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) data, 1 in 5 women aged between 18 and 45 in Turkey were married before the age of 18. A third of women who were married before the age of 18 became a mother while still a child, while half of the women who were married as children experienced physical violence.
In December 2020, UNFPA Turkey released a report in cooperation with the Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, titled, “Child, Early and Forced Marriage in Turkey: Data Analysis of Turkey Demographic and Health Surveys 1993-2018.” The report noted that numerous factors, such as “poverty, low levels of education, lack of legal regulations, violence and abuse, cultural practices [as well as] customs and traditions, along with gender inequalities and migration” all contributed to the persistence of CEFM.
One factor the report specifically pointed to was “the formation of marriages,” emphasizing the lack of data on the investigation of consent, or “conditions of this consent,” when it is reported that a child bride approved of a marriage. That is why the place of religious marriages is so important in this whole picture and why the practice of child marriage has been so difficult to root out. As the report concluded: “Since the identification of marriageable age is not a sufficient prevention of societally justified child marriages, steps aimed at shifting the traditional and cultural norms are necessary.”
The case of H.K.G. illustrates how these factors come together to foment tragedy. After she visited a hospital with her mother on Aug. 17, 2012, due to menstrual irregularity, the doctor who examined her reported the situation and patient’s young age to the police. According to information published in BirGun and other Turkish media outlets, the prosecutor initiated an investigation and asked for a medical age determination report from H.K.G. However, in another hospital, medical professionals filed a report falsely stating that H.K.G. — 14 years old at the time but 17 according to her mother’s statement — had intact physical and mental health, compatible with the health of a 21-year-old. The investigation was closed.
In one photo she turned in to the prosecutor, H.G.K. was 6 years old, wearing a wedding dress. Other photos depict her during her engagement at the age of 13 and at the wedding when she was 14. In the audio recordings of conversations between her and her “husband” Istekli, we read from reports, H.G.K. confronted him about being raped “every day from the age of 6 to 14.” Istekli responds that it is “nonsense” to speak of this as rape — because they were religiously “married.”
In her statement, as reported in BirGun, H.K.G. also described her experiences of the day after the religious wedding. The sexual abuse was presented to the little girl as a game.
“Kadir caressed my body, rubbed my feet and then ejaculated on my feet. I cried. Kadir said we were married, just like my parents were.” Istekli reportedly told her, “You are my wife, I am your husband. Married people play such games, but this game is not to be told to anyone. Look, your mother and father don’t tell anyone.” She added in her statement that her parents both used to call Istekli “my son-in-law.”
Only as she grew older did H.K.G. understand that she was the victim of sexual abuse. After hearing information about child brides on the radio, she realized that was what she’d been through for years. It took her years to come forward in 2020. After she gave her statement, the Ministry of Family and Social Services provided shelter, protection and vocational training.
The controversy still continues in Turkey, in the midst of public angst. The first hearing at the court was moved forward to Jan. 30 of this year from the initial date set for May.
How can such horrors be prevented? Some journalists in Turkey, such as Nagehan Alci and Ismail Saymaz, suggest that the religious sects should receive legal status and thereby be brought under the state’s control. The resulting transparency would supposedly suffice to stop the abuse of children and women that has (re)surfaced in the Turkish news over the past few years. Other columnists, like Sedat Ergin, point out that the religious views of some communities conflict with Turkey’s secular constitutional order and the legal minimum age for marriage enshrined in the law. Meanwhile, conservative columnists like Yusuf Ziya Comert and Nihal Bengisu Karaca have not shied from pointing to the “understanding of Islam” by Muslims like H.G.K.’s father or ex-husband.
As the trial gets underway, the debate about H.K.G.’s abuse is likely to continue in Turkey. Ultimately, the tragic story may go down in history as a watershed moment — especially if it can lead to soul-searching in circles where traditional norms about early marriage or child abuse still do not always receive the outrage they deserve.
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