Feminist historiography and Armenian feminists in Turkey (1)

When looking at the women’s movement in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and the first period of the Turkish Republic, we can see that it was a multi-identity movement consisting of Armenian, Greek (Rum), Circassian, Jewish, Kurdish, and other women.

"I felt that I was being crushed by the responsibilities I bore as a woman while the rights given to me in return were negligible in comparison. I became wholly convinced that feminism was “a cry for justice.”

Hayganus Mark, 1927

Feminist historiography in Turkey has been written for a long time, whether consciously or not, under the influence of Turkish nationalism. This historiography ignored those who put forth a great struggle for women’s rights during the Ottoman period.

In a sense, the first wave of feminism in the Republican period aimed to decrease the visibility of the women’s movement in the Empire and pushed the emergence of feminism in these lands to a later date – to the founding of the Republic.

The roots of the women's struggle and its heroes were obscured by the Kemalist government's desire to sever its connection to the Ottoman Empire, that is, its ties with its own history.

In addition to spreading the message of "our country is democratic" against the rising tide of fascism around the world, being able to say "we were the first to give women their rights" was undoubtedly important for the ruling government. However, even years later, it was odd not to associate the acquisition of those rights with the demands for public and personal equality that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When we look at the components of the women’s movement in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and the first period of the Turkish Republic, we can see the presence of Armenian, Greek (Rum), Circassian, Jewish, Kurdish, and other women, and that it was a multi-identity movement. Women were part of a dynamic movement that had associations and foundations established by congregations for women, working groups, meetings, and magazines they published themselves.

Succeeding the multilingual and multicultural Ottoman women’s struggle, the movements that came in the early years of the Republic and persisted until the 1980s turned into one that was predominantly a monolingual and monocultural Turkish-Muslim women’s movement.

Those who did not identify with nationalism or kept it at arm’s length also evaded responsibility in this matter and did not go against the tide. Even those who were leftists or part of liberation movements like the feminist struggle were stumped on this issue from time to time.

The feminist movement, bolstered after the September 12 Coup, emerged as a reaction to the first-wave feminism described as Kemalist and the conceptualization of a “woman” whose limits were drawn by Kemalism, which thus triggered the second wave of feminism in Turkey.

Some feminists, in addition to criticizing the top-down approach of the “freedom given to women” by Kemalism, also began to think on the Ottoman women’s movement of the 19th century. It was at this point that light was shed on the Armenian feminist women and the women’s movement in the Empire.

In the second half of the 2000s, Armenian feminists were a subject of discussion. In this regard, the threshold that Turkey finally crossed with regard to the Armenian Genocide was also effective. It was almost as if the two topics and their “discovery” contributed to each other and to many other issues.

Assistant Professor Basak Tug, one of those who criticizes feminist historiography that claims to create an alternative to official history, says “While we all claim to liberate one identity within liberation movements, we have ignored other identities. We failed to realize that while we were bringing our identity as women to the forefront, we wrote history through our Turkish-Muslim identity... This [new] movement is an opposition on two fronts. First, it envisions an uprising against Turkey's official history. It recognizes the reality that Armenians, just like women, were subjects of Ottoman-Turkish history, and is a stance against the denial of the Armenian Genocide…”

It is thought that the stagnation in the women’s rights struggle following the establishment of the Republic, between the years 1930 and 1950, can be attributed to a notion that gained traction at the time: that with the proclamation of the Republic, the requisites of women’s rights would be dealt with by the state itself.

The fact that the desire and struggle of Nezihe Muhiddin, the founder of the Women’s People Party in 1923, to take part in parliament through a party consisting solely of women and to win the political and social rights of women, was met with disapproval because the Republican People’s Party was in the process of formation and was even considered a crime presents an apt example for this argument.

The Women’s People Party’s initiative was deemed unnecessary, and the idea that “it is sufficient for women to be involved in educational and charity work” prevailed. Muhiddin was expelled from her party and left to deal with the lawsuits filed against her.

In truth, there was nothing more natural than for the women in the modernization movement that came with the Second Constitutional Era to continue in their struggle even more passionately. Also admirable is the struggle of Hayganus Mark, who defined herself as the first feminist activist Armenian woman, in those same years.

Writer and publisher Hayganus Mark, who characterized feminism as a "cry for justice,” in a conference at the Turkish Women's Union in 1927, addressed the mayor at the time, who claimed that "women cannot be equal to men because women do not do military service and do not go to war” through her article in the journal Hay Gin (The Armenian Woman, 1919-1933), which was founded with the aim of “being involved with every issue that concerns the woman’s world.”

In her article, widely quoted after its publication, Mark stated that “... the question of whether men and women are equal has been resolved in foreign countries and is a dish too cold to even be served at the table.”

For a long time, these events were unable to reach us from where they lay in the dusty pages of history. In the mid-1990s, a group of young Armenian collegiate women turned to Armenian sources during their feminism studies. This orientation enabled not only the multilingual feminism movement that started in the Ottoman Empire to reach us, but also Armenian feminist women themselves, as their works unread for one hundred years found a voice and soul once more.

These women first shared their work with society through activities at their associations, and then they carried their passion to the field of academia. They built a bridge between the past and the present. We did not merely travel to the past or witness Armenian women’s struggle for their rights. By virtue of this bridge, it was as if these women were reborn.

The comprehensive analysis titled "A Cry of Justice - Five Armenian Feminist Writers from the Ottoman Era to Turkey" published by Aras Publishing in 2006 was, in my opinion, this bridge itself. Lerna Ekmekcioglu, Melissa Bilal, and her colleagues were the most important academicians who introduced us to these forgotten pages and broadened our horizons.

Lerna Ekmekcioglu examines silencing mechanisms in her article titled "Anatomy of an Absence,” published in the aforementioned book, on the issue of Armenian Feminists who were discounted and whose stories were not included in the Ottoman/Turkish women's historiography which began to develop in the 1980s even though these women had belonged to Ottoman/Turkish society.

In the context of seeing the different, that is, the Armenian women’s movement, as the "other,” she says that, to begin with, Armenian cultural documentation is postponed in the archives. Describing the "diasporization" of Armenian sources, the academic classifies the errors in historiography in Turkey into three main groups:

1. Interchangeable use of the terms Ottoman woman and Turkish woman: Armenian, Greek (Rum), and other women who defended women's rights were ignored in subsequent years because they were not Turkish-Muslims even though women from different ethnicities in the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey had similar roles, responsibilities, and struggles.

2. Problems of chronological determination: Previous researchers only considered the Ottoman Turkish language when shedding light on historical facts such as the first female novelist of the period, the first women's magazine, the first women's association, etc. while the women who spoke Armenian, Greek and Arabic, which were among the languages ​​of the Empire, were not taken into account.

3. Problems in the narrative pattern: The narrative that the Ottoman and Republican periods were independent and distinct from each other, the claim that the "oppressed and second class" status of women in the Ottoman Empire changed only with Kemalism.

The book “A Cry for Justice - Five Armenian Feminist Authors from the Ottoman Empire to Turkey,” tells us about the liberation struggle of Ottoman women in different fields and the role of Armenian feminist women in this matter, and with every page makes us regret discovering them so late. The book introduces us to the life stories and goals of five leading activist writers (Elbis Gesaratsyan, Serpuhi Dusap, Zabel Asadur [Sibil], Zabel Yesayan, and Hayganus Mark) who spread the Armenian women's struggle in Istanbul throughout Anatolia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.

In the next article, let us question: Who were these women, what were their demands, what kind of world did they imagine, and what were they prepared to do on the path to equality and freedom?

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