A screenshot from the Esra Erol show

The guests are waiting in the hall, all dressed up, with the customary gold coins and jewellery ready to be pinned to the bride’s sash. The band is playing and the bride is about to enter the room, but there’s one thing missing: the groom. There is no husband at this pretend wedding of a woman with Down’s syndrome.

Such symbolic celebrations, traditionally organised by the families of people with Down’s syndrome, have become increasingly popular in Turkey. Most are thrown for women – the bride usually dances with her brother or father instead of a groom – although there have also been a few for men. Recently, municipalities have started organising the weddings, with some mayors officiating and even pinning the jewellery onto the bride. Well-known singers have performed at some events, and one wedding was featured on a popular reality TV matchmaking show.

But these symbolic weddings tell a more troubling story about attitudes in Turkey towards people with disabilities. Activists argue that they patronize and infantilise those with Downs Syndrome in a country with inadequate social provision for people with special needs.

Fulya Ekmen, the vice-chair of Turkey’s Down’s Syndrome Foundation, warned the weddings were an inadequate way to meet people’s emotional needs.

“People with Down’s syndrome are perceived either as asexual or as individuals who can’t control their sexual urges,” Ekmen said. “Neither perception is correct. What [people with Down’s syndrome] really want are real relationships, not make-believe weddings. They want to form emotional connections with people, and to love and be loved like everyone else.”

Because of the stigma surrounding Down’s syndrome in Turkey, families only rarely speak to journalists about the weddings. When they do, they often stress how happy it makes their children. In December 2018, Cüneyt Ataman told Voice of America about the wedding for his 21 year-old daughter Hatice.

“We wanted to make her dream come true … her happiness is the only thing that matters,” he said.

In March 2019, Aysın Üçtaş told the Doğan News Agency that her 22 year-old daughter Sümeyye had been too excited to sleep on the night before her wedding.

“Whenever my daughter saw wedding dresses, she would say she wanted to wear them,” Aysın said.

But not everyone is left happy. Ayşe – not her real name – organised a symbolic wedding for her 20-something sister, who has Down’s syndrome.

“My sister doesn’t entirely know what marriage is. She just always wanted to wear a wedding dress because of all the weddings she’s been to,” Ayşe said. “We know that people with Down’s syndrome can get married with some support in other countries. But that’s not really possible in more conservative families. So we decided to give her a symbolic wedding. We only had close relatives. There was a henna ceremony and my sister danced with the wedding singer.”

But after the wedding, Ayşe’s sister wanted to know where the man she had danced with was.

“She thought he was her husband and she started asking why he wasn’t coming home, and saying she would wait for him when we were out to eat. She knows it’s not a real marriage, but she’s confused,” Ayşe said. “At first I thought we were doing something that would make her happy but now I wonder whether we made a mistake.”

Down’s Syndrome Foundation Vice-Chair Fulya Ekmen (Credit: Down’s Syndrome Foundation Turkey)

Ekmen said that symbolic weddings also contribute to a false perception of people with Down’s syndrome that leaves them vulnerable.

“It’s tricking people with Down’s syndrome as if they were children. Someone could approach an individual and ask ‘will you marry me?’ in order to abuse them. People with disabilities can step into adult roles with the right training, but if you treat them like children they’ll remain childlike,” Ekmen said.

Mayors who officiate at these symbolic weddings say it’s their duty to support people with disabilities and make them happy, but Ekmen thinks that municipalities would do better to offer more essential services.

“[The weddings] only serve a public relations campaign based on pity,” Ekmen said. “Municipalities could instead offer sex education classes and direct people who want to get married to experts. They could give workshops on independent living or host meeting groups for individuals with Down syndrome.” Although Turkey signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, which includes a right to get married, Ekmen argues that the country is failing to live up to its obligations.

TOHAD lawyer Güler Polat (Credit: Güler Polat’s private album)

According to the 2011 population and housing survey, 6.6 per cent of Turkey’s population live with disabilities, although this does not include chronic illnesses. It’s estimated that around 70,000 people in the country have Down’s syndrome, but there are no definite statistics.

Güler Polat, a lawyer for the Association of Social Rights and Research (TOHAD), said that Turkish law currently prevents people with learning difficulties from getting married.

“The legislation says that ‘individuals who lack the capacity to act [independently] cannot perform the act of marriage, which has financial consequences.’ This effectively forbids marriage for individuals with Down’s syndrome,” she said.

Polat wants this legal barrier lifted, in line with the UN convention, although this would be insufficient on its own.

Ekmen agrees. “People with Down’s syndrome can get married with the appropriate support,” he said, highlighting the importance of support continuing after people get married.

Ayşe, meanwhile, is left regretting her sister’s wedding. “I wish we hadn’t done it,” she said.