Ottoman Feminists and their Struggle in Modern Day Turkey

How Ottoman feminists shed light on Turkey’s contemporary gender divide

Ottoman Feminists and their Struggle in Modern Day Turkey
A rally marking the International Women’s Day on Istiklal avenue, in Istanbul on March 8, 2019/Yasin AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

Less than a century ago, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his single-party regime co-opted a burgeoning women’s rights movement to limit its independent political power and tame its ambitions. His motive, as is so often the case with autocratic rulers, was to turn a potentially formidable challenge to his rule into a revisionist accomplice of it, fostering social cohesion as a bulwark against an external enemy of the state.

Atatürk led the War of Independence and saved the country from foreign occupation following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the First World War. After emerging victorious, he carried out numerous, ambitious reforms to create a modern republic from the ashes of the world’s last Islamic caliphate. The republic’s modern women, who were finally free to roam the public sphere, emerged as a symbol of these accomplishments.

Within 15 years, the caliphate was abolished; a unified, secular education was introduced for children, a clothing reform was completed, and a new civil code ended polygamy and gave women equal rights with men on matters relating to divorce. Islam was removed as the state’s official religion, and the principles of secularism were introduced.

In 1930, women were allowed to vote for the first time in local elections. In 1934, universal suffrage was expanded to national elections, earlier than in France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

These improvements were life-changing and were unlikely to happen under different circumstances. Yet they had a single drawback: Women were expected to ascribe to a false narrative on how these rights came about, which completely ignored the vibrant women’s movement that had long been demanding them. Official history claimed that full equality had been achieved under “state feminism,” without any prior demands from women.

Still today, a majority of the Turkish public believes that women were handed their rights, as if on a silver platter. However, according to the rectified version of history, it was in the late 19th century that Muslim women of the Ottoman Empire first started to demand their rights. (Ottoman Armenian women started to voice feminist demands even earlier, but as this piece is concerned with how Atatürk treated the extension of Ottoman Muslim feminists under the new republic, the focus will solely be on the latter.)

At the time, women were strictly excluded from public life. The simple freedom of wandering the streets alone had only become possible after the turn of the century, when the 1908 Young Turk Revolution kicked off the Second Constitutional Period. And even then, harassment of women in public spaces was common.

A 1908 article from the women’s magazine Demet, for instance, complained of repeated attacks against women walking unchaperoned, including one where men bearing pocketknives tore open a group of women’s çarşafs — the loose outer garments that fully cover their bodies and hair.

The women will “no longer silently accept this treatment,” the magazine protested. Women had experienced life in segregation, and they wanted something more.

Through this period, from 1868 until the republic’s founding in 1923, around 40 women’s magazines were published. Women considered these as a means of demonstrating their intellectual prowess and proving that what had held them back was not some biological “inferiority” — as the conventional wisdom stated — but the lack of access to education.

When Şükufezar hit the stands in 1886 as the first magazine to be prepared by and for women, it said: “We, a group that has long been humiliated by men for being ‘long haired and short brained (a proverb that’s still in use today),’ will try to prove that we are in fact just the opposite.”

Women’s demands and rhetoric were further emboldened with the Second Constitutional Period, when everything started to fall into place: Newfound freedoms of the constitutional revolution, combined with inspirational news from the women’s movement in Europe, as well as their own recent access to the printing press, catalyzed Ottoman Turkish women to develop a voice.

Through these magazines, women objected to prearranged marriages, to their vulnerability of being divorced at their husbands’ whim (men could divorce their wives easily by repeating the phrase boş ol three times), and surely, to polygamy. They wanted equal footing within marriage and modern garments that could ease their entry into public life. They wanted an education and to work outside of the home. These demands would later be fulfilled by the secular republic.

“If we were to work and earn our living, we would not be so helpless.”

“Yes, we have been oppressed and oppressed, and the primary reason for our oppression is because we are being provided solely by men,” wrote Aziz Haydar Hanım for Kadınlar Dünyası (Women’s World) magazine. “If we were to work and earn our living, we would not be so helpless.”

Initially an amplifier of women’s voices in the public sphere, over time the magazines also enabled them to organize gatherings, such as the 1911 “white conferences.” These were named after their all-white rule: The attendees were expected to arrive wearing white at a venue also decorated in white. The orator at these white conferences, Fatma Nesibe Hanım, whose background remains obscure, delivered fiery speeches that were later transcribed for Kadın (Woman) magazine by the event’s anonymous hostess, known by the initials P.B.

“We are confronted with a power that is rotten and stout, that is selfish and hypocritical,” Nesibe Hanım had declared at the first meeting, which was attended by 250 women. “Everything is in their favor: the laws and customs, pleasures and debauchery, riches, power and grandeur, admiration and dominance.”

“I assure you, ladies,” she said, “we will not go on like this. Pay attention to all corners of the world, for we are at the brink of a revolution.”

Like so much of women’s suffrage and emancipation around the world, the change that Turkish women had hoped for was ultimately brought on by war.

During World War I, with over 2.8 million Ottoman men conscripted into fighting, Ottoman women stepped in to keep the country’s economy running. They pursued work outside the home, accepting jobs as public servants and in various trades: barbers, public sanitation workers, and, in some instances, the newly operational women’s battalions.

Further contributing to the war effort, women established benevolent associations, mobilized aid, and, following defeat, took to the stage in public rallies to muster support for the War of Independence. Amid consecutive wars, they were not only empowered but also politicized, envisioning their future as active participants in the political process.

One prominent journalist, Sabiha Zekeriya (Sertel), captured this sentiment in an article she wrote for the weekly magazine Büyük Mecmua — which was shuttered by British occupying forces after a short publication period in the spring of 1919. In her article, “Womanhood and Election,” Zekeriya wrote:

“Freedom can no longer be provided to a limited group. And a parliament composed solely of male representatives can no longer represent the entire country. As men constantly stand in the position of lawmakers, they make brutal and tyrannical laws against women. The Turkish woman, however, has risen to the extent that she no longer has to surrender to men’s despotic laws.”

When Turkey won its quest for independence and the modern republic was established, women began to strategize. They had recognized their contributions to the war effort, and now they demanded the political rights they were owed. They formed the Women’s People Party — the first women’s political party to demand permission to operate, despite eventually being denied.

Women cannot form a political party, they were told, because they don’t have political rights. Eventually, they were given the green light to form an association, the Turkish Women’s Union, after agreeing to remove any mention of political rights from their charter.

Nezihe Muhittin, an activist and journalist, emerged as the leader of the group, while Zekeriya was among its members. Latife Hanım, at the time Atatürk’s wife, was also known to be supportive. But their calls for political rights remained unanswered in the country’s new constitution.

Women were told they hadn’t matured enough and that, for now, they would have to vote “through their husbands.” These rights would arrive a decade later, at the time preferred by the single-party regime, and women of many generations would be told that this had been an act of generosity, as their foremothers had never asked for them.

This myth of equality achieved under state feminism continued for many decades until the 1980s, when an independent feminist movement started to take shape. By this time, it had become apparent that state feminism didn’t advance women’s rights and that women were still bound by traditional gender roles.

The civil code still recognized men as leaders of the family. Women could work — but, until 1990, only with the consent of their husbands. Upon marriage, they had to bear their husbands’ last name. In the public sphere, they had to be modest at all times; the sexual liberties encouraged in men were strictly forbidden to women.

Moreover, despite having gained civil and political rights decades ago, women were underrepresented in the workforce as well as in the parliament. The female labor participation rate was 46% in 1980, much lower than in 1955 (72%) — part of a downward trend that continues to this day. Meanwhile, political representation was almost negligible, with female MPs comprising only 3% of the parliament in 1983. And women’s entry to public life wasn’t comprehensive: Women who wished to wear the headscarf were excluded, unable to enter universities or work as public servants.

Such problems were not confined to urban, middle-class women, who were the biggest beneficiaries of Kemalist reforms. In rural Anatolia, the limitations on women’s rights were fundamental. Girls lacked access to education, and child marriages and so-called honor killings remained rampant.

Yet, despite these persistent inequalities, women had thus far remained thankful for their lot instead of mobilizing to demand equal rights. They preferred to see privileges where, under different circumstances, they might have seen injustice. The official narrative was powerful and rendered women indebted to “state feminism.”

And no one would remember the Ottoman women’s movement had it not been for the feminist academics who decided to seek their foremothers, only to uncover a massive, buried truth and force a retelling of official history. The myth of gender equality, achieved through a magnanimous, feminist state that extended women their rights before there was any demand for them, was thus shattered.

That most are more familiar with the state’s version of history is problematic because today, another, incomplete story is being used to undermine women’s rights.

Every year, Turkish women are killed by the hundreds, mostly by the men in their families. Yet instead of protecting them, the government fends for the increasingly corrupt institution of the family and devises legal changes to keep women in abusive marriages while working to strengthen traditional gender roles.

Paradoxically, the religious-nationalist Justice and Development Party (AKP) responsible for these developments, and its powerful leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continue to enjoy substantial support from women.

Religious women adore Erdoğan for lifting the notorious headscarf ban, which allowed covered women to fully enter the public sphere after a delay of nearly a century. Meanwhile, Erdoğan willingly adorns the role of protector, safeguarding the rights of religious women against the lurking secularist establishment, which allegedly seeks to reverse these newfound freedoms.

This obscures the years of mobilization and organization by women, and in the process, Erdoğan has sidelined independent, Islamist women’s organizations that contributed immensely to this victory.

To be clear, unlike Atatürk, Erdoğan can make no claim to state feminism. As his policies demonstrate, Erdoğan is staunchly against gender equality and has previously scorned feminists for having no affinity with Turkey’s “civilization, belief, religion.” The sexist rhetoric that both he and members of his AKP often fall back on also needs no introduction. Erdoğan continues to impose gender roles on women in exchange for lifting segregation. He offers, at best, an appeasement strategy.

Yet Erdoğan makes use of the “savior” narrative, falsely claiming to protect religious women even as his conservative policies chip away at their rights.

In 2017, the AKP revised a 2010 circular that aimed to ensure women have equal opportunities at work. Under the revision, the principle of equality went unmentioned, audit reports would no longer be concerned with gender equality or the “equal pay for equal work” requirement, and large companies would no longer be scrutinized on their obligation to establish daycare centers.

Changes such as these, which seek to tie women to the household through care responsibilities, disproportionately affect women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who cannot outsource these services. These women also constitute the bulk of the AKP’s support base: 53% of the party’s supporters come from lower- and lower-middle income groups, according to a 2017 survey.

Moreover, policies that prioritize family come at the expense of women’s individual rights with regard to marriage and divorce and leave them unprotected against domestic violence.

In 2020 alone, at least 471 women were killed in femicides or died suspiciously. According to the Monument Counter, a website where the names of murdered women are written in memoriam, stacked on top of one another like bricks in a giant wall, 1,863 women were killed over the past five years.

In apparent disregard to the risk to women’s lives, the AKP has not responded to calls for action but has instead heeded radical interests by withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, the treaty that aims to prevent and combat violence against women, which Turkey ratified in 2012. There are other such radical groups, one of which has been lobbying the government to amend alimony laws in favor of men.

Thus, while Erdoğan benefits from a myth of heroism that appears to be informed by strategies from the single-party era, there is a major difference between the past and the present: Republican reforms may have fallen short of feminist demands, but they unquestionably improved women’s prospects, whereas Erdoğan has been actively curtailing existing rights, liberties, and protections for all women, secular and religious alike.

Under the circumstances, the story of Ottoman feminists is increasingly relevant, both as an empowering history and as a cautionary tale.

After withdrawing from the political scene for believing the state would champion their rights, it took decades for women to realize the extent of discriminatory laws and practices that still survived and to regain their organizational strength to oppose them. Pious women who trust Erdoğan with their fate, despite his policies that warrant vigilance, are repeating a familiar mistake.

Still, there is hope. Unlike a century ago when a single party ruled the country, today, Turkey is a multiparty democracy — however broken its system may be. As an important support base for Erdoğan, women have the capacity to wield considerable political power. It would be wise to seize this influence to safeguard, and improve upon, existing rights.

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