by Paige Jordan
Family is the foundation of everyday life in Turkey. While family dynamics and expectations have been affected by social changes in Turkey since the 1950s, the significance of family has not been shaken. Even in the midst of political turmoil today, the family remains a stable, close-knit, and enduring social structure.
The Significance of Family
In Turkey, one’s everyday needs are primarily fulfilled by the family. From providing social interactions and a listening ear, to assistance finding a job or making political connections, family is the first place Turks turn to when in need of support (Yapp and Dewdney 2017). In this way, family provides the necessary safety net that in more individualistic nations is often replaced by government-run social services.
Traditionally, Turks were divided into extensive familial groups or clans. These groups would live in close proximity to one another and would provide mutual support and defense (Yapp and Dewdney 2017). In a rural community, agricultural collaboration within the clan was key to ensuring the life and prosperity of the whole family, as well as the ability of the clan to defend itself. The clan also came together to support one another through important life events such as marriage, birth, and death. In rural areas especially, one’s clan was often the sole source of social interaction and relationships.
Family Structure and Social Change
Today, while the value of family has not diminished, many differences in family structure, expectations, and experiences have evolved. This is true largely based on where the family lives. Generally, this has been divided into an urban/rural dichotomy. With increased rural migration to cities starting in the 1950s, the situation became more complicated.
Typically, urban Turks put more emphasis on the nuclear family while rural Turks are more reliant on their extended family, in a manner reminiscent of the traditional clans. The development of the nuclear family itself is an element of Westernization and/or modernization in Turkey, reflecting individualist values and family structures often found in European and other Westernized countries. This difference of urban vs. rural and modern vs. traditional sheds light on the question of whether or not “modernization” is the same as “Westernization”, a debate that is very important for understanding how Turkey has evolved (but is not within the scope of this eBook).
The differences between urban and rural families also apply to views on religion, marriage and dating, children, gender roles, and even living situations. Yet there are still many familial aspects to Turkish culture that remain the same across even the most different of families. These include the importance of living near one another, the reverence of elders, the participation of family in life-cycle events, and coming together for holidays.
Marriage is generally expected of Turkish youth, with most young Turks getting married somewhere around their early to mid-twenties (Turkish Statistical Institute). The wedding ceremonies are often quite elaborate, loyal to tradition, and include multiple days of celebration. One of these celebrations is a night for the bride prior to the ceremony that gives her a chance to celebrate with her family and friends. Traditionally, she and her friends apply ornate henna decorations to their hands as the central activity of the evening, or “Henna Night.” The civil ceremony is the only part of the marriage that carries any legal weight, meaning that a religious ceremony is completely optional and not required. This promotion of civil, rather than purely religious, marriages was a key aspect of Ataturk’s modernization and secularization reforms.
Image: by Akbulut, Melisa. “Picture of a Turkish Henna Night.” October 26, 2017.
The Culture of Marriage
Today, there is a very strong social expectation for Turkish citizens to marry. This traditional view on marriage and family has remained mainly unchanged since Ottoman times. The practices surrounding marriage, however, have undergone significant changes since the formation of the Turkish Republic. In 1926, the Family Law abolished the Islamic Family Law and established marriages as primarily civil ceremonies. This move to make marriage civil rather than religious created tension in some communities due to the importance of religious observance for many Turks.
Occasionally, families still have religious ceremonies prior to the civil ceremony to honor both state and cultural expectations, as well as personal beliefs. One aspect of traditional Turkish weddings is an event called kına gecesi (henna night). The henna night takes place on the third night before the wedding ceremony and is an important event for the bride as she prepares to leave her home and join her husband’s family. Traditionally, the bride dresses in a red or purple gown and veil. The mother of the groom then places a gold coin in the bride’s hand and covers it with a ball of henna. Her palm is wrapped and covered with a red glove until the henna sets. During this time, the women sing songs to make the bride cry. Her tears symbolize her grief as she prepares to leave her mother and family. On the second night, a wedding party is held in the bride’s home. The official wedding is held the night before the legal ceremony and occurs at the groom’s home. It’s a night of feasting and celebration. On the day of the civil ceremony, the groom and groomsmen place the Turkish flag at the front of the home. The groom and his family then pick up the bride in a parade of cars decorated with flowers and streamers. During the wedding, guests are expected to pin money or gold to the bride’s gown in order to financially prepare the young couple. At the end of the ceremony, during the signing of the marriage certificate, the bride and groom attempt to step on each other’s toes to signify who will have the “final word” in their marriage.
Familial expectations regarding marriage and the process of finding a spouse vary across families, with the main differences being found between urban and rural families. Most often, urban families are more supportive of dating and/or longer courtships. Rural families, on the other hand, are more likely to support arranged marriages and closely monitored courtships. In fact, nearly 60% of first marriages in Turkey are still arranged (Turkish Statistical Institute).
Just as Atatürk reformed marriage, he also reformed divorce. By making divorce secular and free of ties to Islamic law, men and women gained equal rights in the eyes of the law. This has given more rights to women in divorce proceedings, allowing them to more easily obtain a divorce and be protected from unwarranted divorce, and given them more power with regard to property rights (Pinar 2018).
Children are cherished in Turkish culture. Growing up, kids rarely go to daycare. Instead, their mother or a grandparent takes care of them during the day until they are old enough to go to school. The centrality of extended family remains apparent in this fact.
There is still a preference for boys over girls in Turkey. While this preference does not often have an impact on the opportunities a child is given, it does affect how they are raised and their family’s expectations of them. Typically, girls are taught to be more passive and boys are encouraged to be more aggressive and tenacious (“The Extended Family”). These expectations reflect gender inequality in Turkey, especially as women remain inactive in high profile positions in business and politics (“Economies”).
Even though many mothers work, particularly in urban areas, the children still remain the responsibility of the mother. With only 2.8% of Turkish children attending daycare (Turkish Statistical Institute), a mother must find a balance between her children and her job. Grandparents have a vital role in caring for and raising the children, especially as they often live in close proximity to one another.
[image: “Children in Northern Nicosia.” Anjadora. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_in_North_Nicosia.jpg. CC. Accessed October 25, 2017.]
In Turkey, respect comes with age. Grandparents, then, are deeply revered, making their care a priority for younger family members. The responsibility of elderly care generally falls to the relative’s children. In the past, it was extremely common for grandparents to live in the same house as their children as they aged, and this practice of co-residence remains particularly common in rural areas. Alternate arrangements exist, however, and this is especially found in urban areas. Grandparents may live in a neighboring apartment or have private, in-home care provided for them.
Same-sex sexual activity was legal in the late Ottoman Empire and is still technically legal in Turkey today, but LGBTQ couples do not have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples and discrimination protections have not been legislated. Transexuals are allowed to change their legal gender, but public opinion on homosexuality remains conservative and LGBTQ people experience increasing discrimination and even violence.
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“Economies.” Global Gender Gap Report 2016, World Economic Forum , reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/economies/#economy=TUR. Accessed November 8, 2017.
“The Extended Family .” Country Study- Turkey, Library of Congress, countrystudies.us/turkey/47.htm Accessed October 24, 2017.
Gurbuz, Şeyma Nazli and Nurefsan Kutlu. “The perfect henna night: Transformation of a traditional Turkish wedding ritual.” January 20, 2017, https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2017/01/21/the-perfect-henna-night-transformation-of-a-traditional-turkish-wedding-ritual Accessed Oct. 2, 2018
Ozbek, Pinar. “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and His Reforms.” Penn State “Leadership in a Global Context,” Feb. 8, 2018, https://sites.psu.edu/global/2018/02/08/mustafa-kemal-ataturk-and-his-reforms/ Accessed Oct. 2, 2018
Turkish Statistical Institute. “Family Structure Survey, 2016.” Turkish Statistical Institute Family Structure Survey 2016, Republic of Turkey Ministry of Family and Social Policy, 18 Jan. 2017, www.turkstat.gov.tr/PreHaberBultenleri.do?id=21869. Accessed October 24, 2017.
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