What’s in a Name? Intersectional Implications of Forced Surname Change in Turkey
Arab women do not take their husband’s last name after marriage. Yet in 2021, I became the first woman in an entire line of female Arab ancestry to change her last name after marriage, not by choice, but forcibly by the Turkish government when I married a Syrian man in Istanbul. There are currently over 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey, and the law on married women’s last names has important implications for Syrians’ legal rights and cultural identity as both a minority and refugee group.
Article 187 of the Turkish Civil Code states:
Married women shall bear their husband’s name. However, they can make a written declaration to the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths on signing the marriage deed, or at the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths after the marriage, if they wish to keep their maiden name in front of their surname.
Under this article it is impossible for a woman to use only her maiden name after marriage; she either takes her husband’s surname alone or else hyphenates her surname with his. The law applies equally to foreigners unless their applicable embassy can perform their marriage under its own laws. However, both U.S. and Syrian embassies do not perform marriages, and an American marrying a Syrian, or two Syrians marrying in Turkey, would thus be married under Turkish law and subject to Article 187. In the past decade, Turkish courts have become more accepting of women wishing to keep their maiden name, despite Article 187 remaining unchanged. However, the process to file suit in court can cost hundreds of dollars and take months to render a decision—an option out of reach for the vast majority of women, especially with no guarantee that the court will grant the request. Minority and refugee women may face additional obstacles in accessing courts, such as language barriers.
Plenty of literature and several European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) cases discuss how the Turkish system implicates European Convention on Human Rights Article 8 on the right to have private and family life respected and Article 14 on the prohibition of discrimination. But so far, none have looked at the system’s legal and cultural implications for minorities and refugees in Turkey, especially those beyond the rights to privacy and family life free from interference.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not grant refugees the rights associated with cultural identity, so they must find protection for those rights under alternative frameworks, such as the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Although Syrians in Turkey are primarily recognized as refugees, they are also part of a minority group: Arabs in Turkey make up around 5% of the total population and are the second largest minority group in the country. ICCPR Article 27 directs that “[i]n those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” A distinctive aspect of a cultural claim is that both Syrian women and Syrian men can claim that they are being denied the right to enjoy their own culture as it relates to their naming conventions.
Nevertheless, there are several complications to asserting ICCPR Article 27 rights in Turkey. First, Syrians’ simultaneous status as refugees changes and complicates their ability to access their rights as a minority group. Although General Comment 23 explains that Article 27 is not limited to those with citizenship, or even residency, its original drafters conceived of it as excluding non-indigenous populations. Most states expect refugees to assimilate, rather than integrate. Whereas integration is defined as refugees’ adaptation to the host society, “without having to forego their own cultural identity,” states typically adopt assimilation policies that require at least some “culture shedding.”
Moreover, culture shedding for Arabs in Turkey in particular may remain an expectation even with, or despite, citizenship. Turkey reserved “the right to interpret and apply the provisions of Article 27 of the [ICCPR] in accordance with the related provisions and rules of the […] Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923.” The Treaty of Lausanne established Turkey’s modern-day borders, including large areas with ethnic Arabs who have since been subject to Turkification. Although several states challenged Turkey’s reservation, there has not been a case based on Article 27 against Turkey before the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), so it is unclear how the HRC might consider the reservation in a Syrian refugee case.
Turkey has also attempted to justify its current policy as pursuing the “legitimate aim of reflecting family unity through the husband’s surname and thereby ensuring public order.” However, advancements in record keeping systems refute such a need  and such a policy actually generates administrative and familial disruption contradictory to such aims. For example, Noor is a Syrian woman in her late seventies now living in Turkey, whose husband passed away decades ago. In line with Syrian culture, Noor had never changed her last name; their daughter, Mariam, however, took her father’s last name. When granted Turkish citizenship, they were forced to choose whether Noor would take Mariam’s last name or if Mariam would take Noor’s. If Mariam changed her name and later got married, or divorced and remarried, she would have changed her name three to four times–a possibility for nearly a quarter of married women in Turkey, according to divorce statistics. To shield her daughter from such repeated upheaval, Noor chose to change the name she’d known for over seventy years. Administratively, my own case to retain my last name has been on the docket for over a year and has been argued before a judge twice, draining considerable judicial energy.
Despite the ostensible egregiousness of these statistics and anecdotes, ICCPR Article 27 limits minorities’ right to enjoy their own culture “in community with the other members of their group.” In Lovelace v. Canada, the HRC’s first decision relating to Article 27, this part of the article was the central point of analysis in determining whether or not a violation existed. This could prove to be a hurdle for Syrians in Turkey claiming Article 27, given the fact that although their names change on their identification cards, they can still technically continue to be known by their former name within their own community. Other cases before the HRC regarding names were either found inadmissible or did not reach the question of Article 27.
Notwithstanding the limitation in the ICCPR, new legal developments appear to extend the applicability of the right to culture and cultural identity to other core rights. For example, “the protection of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity.” The right to one’s own name itself is also arguably developing into a recognized human right. First, the right to a name is increasingly overlapping with an emerging “right to preserve identity, including nationality, name and family relationships.” Second, both the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages provide some protection for keeping one’s own name, though Turkey is not a party to either treaty.
Regardless of the legal avenues that may be available, however, the impact of Article 187 of the Turkish Civil Code on Syrian culture and identity is already underway. When Noor’s last name was changed, not only was it an “irreversible severance with her [immediate] past” but with her cultural heritage as well. According to psychologists, “culture is learned and passed through generations and includes the beliefs and value system of a society. […] Identity is the totality of one’s perception of self, or how we as individuals view ourselves as unique from others.” Refugees are already adjusting to both a change in identity and in culture following displacement; forcibly replacing a woman’s maiden name reproduces another layer of change in identity and in culture. It contradicts cultural heritage for both Syrian women, who are forced to take on their husband’s surname, and for Syrian men, who are forced to apply their surname to their wife.
When I got married in Istanbul and was forced to hyphenate my last name with my husband’s, I experienced a wide range of emotions. I felt powerless, ashamed, and distanced from my family and culture. These same emotions are compounded twice for Syrian refugees in Turkey. International law must seriously contemplate this reality and develop explicit protection of the right to one’s own name as a human right of all peoples.
[*] Shaza Loutfi received her J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 2022. She also holds a M.U.P.P. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, 2017, and a B.A. in Political Science and French from DePaul University, 2015. Shaza married her husband in Turkey in 2021; she won the case to keep her last name on appeal – on March 8, 2022, or International Women’s Day. She works in international migration, human rights, and humanitarian law, and is currently a legal consultant with Mina’s List serving high-profile Afghan refugees.
 See Cultural Atlas, Syrian Culture: Naming, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/syrian-culture/syrian-culture-naming/ [https://perma.cc/323U-ATSE]; Cultural Atlas, Palestinian Culture: Naming Conventions, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/palestinian-culture/palestinian-culture-naming/ [https://perma.cc/G443-R6EM]; Cultural Atlas, Egyptian Culture: Naming, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/egyptian-culture/egyptian-culture-naming/ [https://perma.cc/5KL6-KP57]; Cultural Atlas, Saudi Arabian Culture: Naming, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/saudi-arabian-culture/saudi-arabian-culture-naming/ [https://perma.cc/YA4V-TCE5].
 UNHCR, Registered Syrian Refugees in Turkey (Last updated 30 Jun. 2022), https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/113/ [https://perma.cc/5F59-7RRT].
 In 2021, 0.9% of grooms and 4.2% of brides in Turkey were foreigners. Of those, 20.7% of foreign grooms and 14.6% of foreign brides were Syrian. Marriage and Divorce Statistics, 2021, Turkish Stat. Inst., Feb. 25, 2022, https://data.tuik.gov.tr/Bulten/Index?p=Evlenme-ve-Bosanma-Istatistikleri-2021-45568 [https://perma.cc/JZ8Q-FSJV].
 Dilsah Busra Kartal, “Recent Developments in Turkish Law Regarding the Surname of a Married Woman,” 23 June 2020, IISES International Academic Virtual Conference, Prague, https://iises.net/proceedings/2020-international-academic-conference-prague/table-of-content/detail?article=recent-developments-in-turkish-law-regarding-the-surname-of-a-married-woman/ [https://perma.cc/LXT6-C2JX].
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 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 17, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171.
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 “States were initially reluctant to accept obligations in relation to persons belonging to minorities and refugees and, as a result, sought to reserve a right to assimilate newcomers during the drafting processes of both Article 27 ICCPR and the UN Refugee Convention. Many refugee receiving States are not only resistant to the extension of Article 27 ICCPR to newer groups but also continue to adopt assimilation policies in relation to autochthonous minorities, for example, by prohibiting the use of minority languages. As assimilation demands culture shedding, it is inherently incompatible with the right to cultural identity and has been discredited under both the IHRL and international refugee law frameworks.” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09240519211033419#:~:text=Currently%2C%20UN%20treaty%20bodies%20neglect,belonging%20to%20minorities%20and%20refugees/ [https://perma.cc/JV23-2YSB].
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 See ICCPR, comments by Germany, Finland, and Sweden, supra note 5.
 Ünal Tekeli v. Turkey, App. No. 29865/96, para 57, Eur. Ct. H.R. (Nov. 16, 2004).
 “…it is perfectly conceivable that family unity will be preserved and consolidated where a married couple chooses not to bear a joint family name. Observation of the systems applicable in Europe supports this finding.” Id. at para 66.
 Names changed for privacy.
 supra note 4. See also, Fariba Nawa, “As ‘fed up’ women in Turkey leave marriages, domestic violence and divorce rates rise,” The World, Feb. 20, 2020, https://theworld.org/stories/2019-02-20/fed-women-turkey-leave-marriages-domestic-violence-and-divorce-rates-rise.
 Sandra Lovelace lost her status as a Maliseet Indian upon marriage to a non-Indian and therefore, even after her divorce, was prohibited from residing on her tribe’s reservation. The HRC did not find the denial of residency alone sufficient, stating “[t]he right to live on a reserve is not as such guaranteed by article 27 […] However, in the opinion of the Committee the right of Sandra Lovelace to access to her native culture and language “in community with the other members” of her group, has in fact been, and continues to be interfered with, because there is no place outside the Tobique Reserve where such a community exists. Lovelace v. Canada, Commc’n No. R.6/24, pp 15, Hum. Rts. Comm. (July 30, 1981).
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