A decision by Turkey's top court to allow citizens to be religiously married without a legally binding civil marriage has triggered uproar among the country's legal and human rights circles, who argue that the move would threaten the rights of women and children in the country.

Religious Muslim marriages, which are frequently carried out in the country, are not recognised by Turkey's secular system and therefore provide family members with no legal rights, including inheritence rights. 

The court's judgement decided announced on Friday argued that it was not possible to indict solely religiously married couples, while it was legal for a woman and a man to live together in Turkey at their will without a religious or civil wedding.

"While individuals practically living together and having children without a religious ceremony or wedding are not being punished, punishing people who made choices in terms of their private lives and had religious marriages displays the [regulation's] intemperance on the issue," the Constitutional Court said.

Unmarried couples live together 

As there is no regulation in Turkey on couples who live together or have extramarital children, their relationships have no legal status without any rights or penalties.

However, before the recent Constitutional Court ruling, individuals living together solely through religious weddings without a civil marriage were sentenced to two to six month in prison, according to paragraph 5 of Article 230 of the Turkish Criminal Code.

Paragraph 6 of the same article stipulated that individuals who carried out a religious wedding ceremony without seeing the relevant civil marriage document should also be imprisoned for two to six months.

The judgement has been slammed by many in Turkey from government officials to lawyers and human rights groups. 

The Constitutional Court defended its judgement [AFP]

In a televised interview on Friday, Aysenur Islam, Turkey's minister for family and social policies, said that repeal of a legislation which would encourage underage marriages could not be tolerated by her ministry.

"Now that this ruling has been decided, we will have to work [on a new legislation] to prevent children under the age of 18 to be married off through unofficial marriages," she said.

"Everybody knows that underage marriage is illegal in Turkey. And the number of such marriages has significantly decreased, but we have to keep our campaign against them."

The ruling is related to a case appealed to the Constitutional Court by a criminal court in Erzurum, an eastern province of Turkey, on three citizens, a religiously married couple and a local religious leader who carried out the ceremony. 

In 1999, the Constitutional Court made a converse ruling in another case and decided that couples living together did not constitute a crime in line with the Turkish Criminal Code, while only religiously married couples do so.

'Against principles of law'

Turkish human rights lawyer Ergin Cinmen told Al Jazeera that the court’s judgement is legally intact in terms of national regulations in Turkey, but it is contradictory to certain aspects of the public law, principle of equality, principle of social state and certain social realities in the country.

"The principles of social state and state of law put foremost importance on children's and women's rights," he said.

"If you get rid of the obligation of civil marriage before religious marriage, this will cause problems in terms of children's and women's rights coming from their links to the family, particularly regarding inheritance rights. Although it is legally intact, the verdict is not compatible with certain aspects of the general principle of law."

The Federation of Turkish Women's Associations said in a declaration on Saturday that the judgement would increase the number of men marrying multiple women, underage marriages, paid marriages, and infringements of women's rights in relation to marriages.

The declaration added that the group would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

ECHR rulings are binding for Turkey, given that the country is a party to the European Convention of Human Rights, the founding treaty of the international organisation.

In a 2010 judgement, the ECHR ruled that a solely religiously married Turkish woman had no inheritance rights to her deceased husband's assets, arguing that the state had no obligation to recognise religious marriages.

Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_uras

Source: Al Jazeera