Woman Has a Name

Jun 5 '13

The following guest post is by Duke political scientist Bahar Leventoglu.


The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made a unanimous decision on May 28, 2013 that “impossibility for married women to use just their maiden name is discriminatory.”[1] I was the complainant in this case. In my application to the court, I claimed that the fact that Turkish law allowed married men but not married women to use just their last name[2] after marriage was discrimination based on sex. In particular, I relied on Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention of Human Rights. The court agreed.

This long legal journey lasted almost 9 years. Here, I want to share my experience, which I hope will attest to how far we still need to go when women’s rights are concerned.

When I got married in 1996, Turkey did not allow married women to keep their last names in any way. Women had to drop their last names and take their husband’s. As a stubborn 24 year old, I was determined not to do it. I had been admitted to graduate school in the US at the time, so I just renewed my national identification card and got a passport with my last name before I got married and left for the US.

In 1997, the government passed a law that allowed women to use their last names next to their husband’s after marriage. For many years, that law applied only to women that got married in 1997 and later; only a couple of years ago, the law was extended to all women. However, the government never considered a law that would allow women to keep just their last names after marriage.

I never used my husband’s last name in the US, however I always knew this would come and haunt me at some point. To preempt the problem, I decided to go to court in 2004. My attorney and I thought the case would proceed smoothly. Because, first, Turkey was a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights, and the Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution dictated that in case of a conflict between international agreements and domestic law, international agreements overruled. Second, there was a recent decision from the ECHR that said the complainant Ayten Unal Tekeli should be able to use just her last name and not allowing this was in violation of Article 14 in conjunction with article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.[3]

We were wrong.

The court did not give me my last name, but also the judge openly mocked with us. He said “I suggest that her husband change his last name and take hers so that she can keep her last name.” We appealed at the Supreme Court of Appeals, and it upheld the lower court’s decision in July 2006. Having consumed all domestic legal ways, the only option left was to go to the ECHR.

At that time, the press paid some attention to the case, and there were some news reports. Reactions? On the positive side, I received messages from women who also wanted to go to court and asked me about the legal process. On the negative side… well, for example, a man called my brother-in-law and told him that he really wanted to talk to me and my husband and tell us about our traditions that were essential to family unity in Turkey. When my brother-in-law told my husband that the man was a professor, my husband replied with a big smile “tell him I am a professor, too.”

In October 2010, I got a proposal from the Turkish government for a friendly settlement. They basically proposed to amend my identification cards so that I could keep just my last name and pay me 1,000 Euro on an ex gratia basis as part of the settlement. I said no, because accepting would allow the case to be struck out of the list at the ECHR and there would be one fewer court decision that could help other women in the future.

In the meantime, there were some developments in Turkey. Some judges at lower courts made favorable decisions in similar cases, and a judge from a family court in Ankara brought a case to the Constitutional Court claiming that the Article 187 of the Civil Code “a woman takes her husband’s name in marriage” was in violation of the Article 10 of the Constitution “All individuals shall be equal before the law without any distinction based on language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, membership of a religious sect or other similar grounds.” The court decided on March 10, 2011 that there was no violation there.

It feels good to have a favorable ECHR decision now. Yet I still do not know whether the government will comply with the ruling and move ahead to change the law. I learned in particular from the domestic court process that constitutional guarantees do not mean much unless the legal system owns them. For the legal system to own them, they must be first recognized by the society. However, women in Turkey are still seen first as wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters.[4] A big chunk of violence against women occurs mostly because men do not recognize them as independent individuals and do not necessarily respect the decisions women make about their lives. When one thinks of the discrimination and violence women face in their daily lives, this last name issue may look trivial. But I sincerely hope that this could be one small but important step toward gender equality.


Note on the title of this post: When I was growing up in Turkey in 1980s, a book called Kadinin Adi Yok (Woman has no name) became a top seller. The book questioned and sharply criticized the status of women in Turkish society. The author, Duygu Asena, was at the forefront of the women’s rights movement in Turkey and wrote on marriage, inequality and domestic violence against women. She and other women paved the way so that women in my generation could take the next step. I am very grateful to them.

[2] I prefer to use “last name” rather than “maiden name.” The term “maiden name” is associated with “virginity” in many cultures like Turkey, which I also feel as sexual discrimination against women.

[3] Unal Tekeli v. Turkey, no. 29865/96, 16 November 2004

[4] A Turkish newspaper article on the ECHR decision about my case was titled “European Court rules Turkish wife can keep her maiden name.” http://www.todayszaman.com/news-316744-european-court-rules-turkish-wife-can-maintain-her-maiden-surname.html Go figure.