The Impact of a Legal Revolution in Rural Turkey

June Starr and Jonathan Robert Pool
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Law and Society Review, 8 (Summer 1974), 533–560.


When the Shari’a courts of Turkey were abolished in 1924, the judiciary became legally independent of religious control. The replacement of the Shari’a by the Swiss civil code in 1926 abolished the jurisdiction of Islamic law in family relations.

The Turkish revolution in legal codes and legal institutions was ambitious. Rural masses resisted dealing with agents of the central government and giving up the rule of the Shari’a and/or local customary law.

Three years (1965 through 1967) of the docket of the Middle Criminal Court in the town of Bodrum, however, suggests that the Turkish legal revolution is a revolution in more than form. Rural Turks are using the courts, not just being brought into court by the government. Most cases, in fact, are civil ones. The use of the courts by citizens extends to arenas formerly within the sphere of religious law alone: These are now among the most common kinds of cases. Women, a traditionally deprived group, are increasingly turning to the court to redress grievances, in some ways more efficaciously than men. At least in its treatment of women and debtors, we find evidence that the court is not merely reinforcing the traditional power structure or serving as an instrument for governmental control of the population.

The government, however, does use the courts for control. The village case volume data in the Bodrum docket attest to the penetration of central authority into rural Turkey.

Whether this central control is state control or party control has been debated, and our data show abrupt shifts in governmental prosecution and judicial decision patterns. The precipitousness and the timing of these changes suggest that Turkish courts are subject to, and are transmitters of, changing influences as national inter-party transfers of political power take place.

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