Protecting the Family: Sanctioning Marriages and Wartime Legal Anxieties in the Ottoman Empire (1914-1918)

By Hakan Karpuzcu
Submitted to Session P5175 (Widows, Adulteresses and Brides: Gender, Power, and Society in the Ottoman First World War, 2018 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the legal interventions made by the Ottoman Empire to restrict the religiously illicit and officially unauthorized marriages during the WWI. As the economic and social difficulties of the war struck the Ottoman population in the homefront, many women, whose husbands and male relatives were conscripted, were in dire need of financial support. When the traditional Islamic legal practice in the Ottoman Empire had precluded most married Muslim women from annulling their marriages, conducting illegitimate marriages became a course of action for those women who wished to alleviate their financial distress. In addition to relieving the public anxieties caused by the disseminating news of extramarital affairs women involved, the need to financially support the women without resources for subsistence became a crucial burden for the Ottoman state. Apart from the unlawful marriages of soldiers’ wives, the Ottoman administration tackled with the contested cases of intermarriages (particularly the ones between Armenian women and Muslim men), the civil marriages of the Ottomans with the European citizens, suspected conversions of non-Muslim women for marriage, and child marriages as well as the legal status of children born out-of-wedlock.
Out of this renewed sense of urgency, the Young Turk regime came out with a pragmatic agenda to standardize the Islamic matrimonial laws, regarded to be ineffective in preventing illicit marriages. Ottoman administration not only introduced new legislation for marriages (the most momentous of all was the codification of family laws in 1917, i.e. the Ottoman Law of the Family Rights). But the state also took measures to strictly monitor the registration of marriages, impose prenuptial licenses, and enforce fines and penalties for violation of these regulations.
Through an analysis of successive legislation on marriage and divorce, and how these laws were put into practice in local settings, I examine how Ottoman state undertook initiatives to police the family in response to the everyday realities of the war. Based on Ottoman archival records of criminal legal disputes pertaining to marriage, the paper also accounts for how the local state officials, religious authorities, and deserted wives engaged in the mundane operation of the law. Attending both to the laws and regulations, and the unintended consequences of such legal interventions in local settings, my paper offers a historical perspective, which combines the study of the law-in-the-making with the ones reflecting its practicalities within the late Ottoman context.