This sorry tale reveals an aspect of "tradition" that is not often highlighted: the very prosaic economic reasons that sometimes hide behind notions of so-called honor and customs.
Mehmet Ali Taysun and Ahmet Suvarigil, who were from the same village, married women from the each other's families in order to avoid paying the customary bride price. The resulting marriages, which produced four and three children respectively, were apparently uneventful until 35-year-old Aliye Taysun developed severe osteoporosis. She underwent an operation, for which her husband had to borrow money from family members, and was left unable to do backbreaking agricultural work.
Her inability to work in the fields is, according to her husband, the main reason why relatives started putting pressure on both couples to separate, and went as far as making up allegations of an affair and invoking family "honor" to make their point. To their credit, both men stood by their wives and are now appealing to the authorities to protect them, after they received death threats from family members.
According to a study on the structure of the Turkish family conducted in 2006 by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), nationwide 16.8 percent of marriages involve payment to the bride's family. In rural areas, the ratio rises to 23.5 percent.
The practice is fortunately on the decline, as illustrated by the fact that marriages involving a bride price are more prevalent in the older generation, but money or goods still change hands in one out of 10 marriages conducted among 18 to 24 year olds.
The compensation is based on the notion that the bride's family will lose the fruit of her labor, which will from the day she marries benefit her husband's family. This understanding has wide implications for the relationship between the spouses, who are not the only parties involved in the arrangement. The bridegroom's entire family then expects to get some returns on its investment.
Berdel bypasses payment and involves, instead, an exchange of brides -- who are also seen as a valuable asset. The practice can have horrendous consequences because the fates of the two couples are forever linked. In Turkey, such tragedies are relatively rare, but when I visited shelters in Pakistan, I met several women who had been kicked out by the in-laws and held little hope of ever seeing their children again because their male relatives had failed to uphold their side of the bargain and had invited retaliation by divorcing their own wives.
One ironic aspect of the Taysun-Suvarigil couples' story is that while Turkish society does not sufficiently acknowledge women's input in the economic life of the country and the authorities have done little to promote women's participation in the labor force, still pitifully low at around 25 percent if you include unpaid rural work, 17 percent in more formal employment in urban areas, this case shows that rural traditions have always assigned a value to women's labor, although the workers themselves were considered little more than bonded labor and had no say in economic decisions.
Urban women may not be involved in the kind of heavy work that rural women routinely undertake, but the role most of them still fulfill as primary providers of child and elderly care is also an indispensable part of the economy, although neither the society nor the government recognize its proper value.