Feminist historiography and Armenian feminists in Turkey (2)

Let us review the histories of five Armenian feminist women who wrote prolifically and left their marks on the era through the schools and philanthropic societies they established. What were their inspirations and how can they be read today?

In the first part of this series, I had discussed the influence of Turkish nationalism in the writing of feminist historiography in Turkey, how important figures with critical roles in the field of women’s rights in the Ottoman era had been overlooked, and that the first wave feminism in the newly formed Republic ignored the women’s movement of the Empire.

Five Armenian Feminists

The first Armenian woman journalist of the Ottoman Empire, Elbis Gesaratsyan published the first Armenian women’s magazine Guitar between the years 1862 and 1863 accompanied by the slogan “An Invite for Armenian Women.” Gesaratsyan, whose writing in Guitar encouraged women’s education and their involvement in public life. Her book, “Letters to the Education-Loving Armenian Woman Reader” was published in 1879 in Istanbul.

Srpouhi Dussap, considered the first female novelist to write in Armenian, focused on the topic of women's decision-making as they built their lives independent of the mandates of the patriarchal system in her essays, articles, and novels. In her articles for various newspapers published in Istanbul and Izmir, she questioned the situation of women who did not have economic or social freedom. Dussap’s mother, Nazli Vahan, was an important defender of women's right to education in her own right.

Dussap founded the St. Hripsimiantz School for Girls in 1859 and the Philanthropist Women’s Society in 1864. Her novels “Mayda” (1883), “Siranush” (1884), and “Araksia” (1887) marked the beginning of women’s literature in Armenian. In addition to describing the social position of women, the pressures they faced, and the gender politics of the era, her stories presented striking parallels with the contemporary era.

Another woman and educator with literary prowess, Zabel Asadour was a fiery women’s rights advocate who was convinced from an early age that women’s empowerment would come through organizing which would enable them to construct a firm identity. In 1879, she founded the Society of Nation-Dedicated Armenian Women with her friends. Her articles were featured in publications such as Masis and Hayrenik. With her part romantic, part realist style and her lyrical and epic form, Asadour ranks among the notable figures marking the shift from literary Romantism to Realism.

Asadour’s dreams were dashed when escalating tensions in 1894 forced the Society into closure, but before long, she found a new sphere of struggle for herself and established the United Society and School-Loving Women’s Foundation. The foundation would later become a shelter and school for orphaned or illiterate Armenian women and girls who came from Anatolia. After the 1908 constitutionalist revolution, the Society reopened its doors.

Feminist writer Zabel Yesayan moved to Paris in 1895 due to political tensions. She was the first Ottoman woman to take literature and philosophy courses at the Sorbonne University. She returned permanently when the Second Constitutionalist Period began in 1908. She rose to prominence in her career as a result of her extensive emphasis in her writing on women's rights and their positions in public life. Yesayan spoke of gender inequality and the dilemma between personal freedoms and the traditional expectations of society.

She followed closely the Adana Massacre of 1909 and became the only woman to visit the Cilicia region after the events. On April 24, 1915 she escaped the death marches of Armenian intellectuals by hiding in a hospital and concealing her identity. After staying for a time in Bulgaria, she relocated to Baku where she joined the relief efforts for Armenian refugees and orphans.

After 1918, she worked on the cause of Armenian orphans in Egypt, Lebanon, and Caucasia. She returned to Paris in 1921. Upon the invitation of the Armenian government, she immigrated to Yerevan in 1933. She lectured on literature at the Yerevan State University. She became a member of the Writers Union of Armenia in 1934. In 1937, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia during the Stalin purges. Her place and location of death could not be determined.

Educator and writer Hayganush Mark wrote her first pieces for the Manzume-i Efkar magazine which was published in the Turkish language with Armenian script. In 1905, she transformed the weekly magazine Dzagig (Flower) into a women's magazine, after she and her husband Vahan Toshigian had assumed its management. Inspired by the feminist movements in France, Mark wanted this magazine to be published "by and for women only.” In 1909, she became the head of the Literary Commission of the Society of Nation-Dedicated Armenian Women and facilitated the establishment of schools in rural areas for the education of Armenian girls. As a result of her work, the number of Armenian schools opened in Anatolia reached 32.

The Discovery of Feminists and Yesayan

The book “A Cry for Justice - Five Armenian Feminist Authors from the Ottoman Empire to Turkey,” tells the story of the liberation struggle of Ottoman women in different fields and the role of Armenian feminist women in this struggle. It is the first and only study of its kind.

Until 2006, it was not possible to read the works of these feminist women outside of Armenian, except for a few limited translations in English or French. Following the aforementioned study put together through the efforts of Ekmekcioglu and Bilal, text translated into Turkish allowed for the development of a perspective on the political stances the Armenian writers constructed on the basis of their identities as women, their interests in social projects of the time such as socialism and feminism, and macro-micro social relations.

The much-delayed discovery of Zabel Yesayan is particularly striking. In 2006, Belge Publishing released The Gardens of Silihtar in Turkish. The documentary Finding Zabel Yesayan, directed by Lara Aharonian and Talin Suciyan, was interesting.

Hazal Halavut's 2012 thesis, “Towards a Literature of Absence: Literary Encounters with Zabel Yesayan and Halide Edib,” focused on Yesayan and Halide Edib. The academic Halavut, who noted “... this work is the narrative of my refusal to compare them or to do a comparative analysis on Yesayan and Edib,” was offering a new perspective: “Instead of asking, ‘What happened in 1915?’ I propose that we ask a new question straight from literature: ‘What did not happen in 1915?’”

Aras Publishing emphasized Yesayan translations in 2014. “In the Ruins,” translated by Kayus Calikman Gavrilof, described the impact the three months Yesayan spent in Adana, in ruins after the 1909 massacre, left on the author, and the anguish and destruction she witnessed. Yesayan had become the eyes, ears, and voice of thousands of orphans, widows, and prisoners on deathwatch in Adana.

Yesayan's book "Madam Meliha Nuri,” in which she tells the story of a woman caught between her feelings for two men during the days of the Gallipoli War, reached readers in 2015 through the translation of academic Mehmet Fatih Uslu. Beyond the love triangle, the book, which presents an Armenian physician in service of the Ottoman army relays the deportations and massacres of Armenians as well as the various reactions these events provoked, serves as a mirror of that period and its people.

As the Turkish translations of Yesayan began to draw attention, my “Soul in Exile” was published in 2016. One of the first literary works written by Yesayan after 1915 and first published in 1922, sets the tensions experienced by Armenians in particular and all Ottoman citizens in general as the stage to talk about belonging to a country while feeling exiled even at home.

"The Last Wineglass,” the last translation of Yesayan’s work also penned by Mehmet Fatih Uslu, was published in 2018. According to critics, this novella, which is the author's strongest work and quite daring for its time, consisted of the letters written by Adrine, the protagonist, to Arshag, her forbidden love.

On the tail end of many years in which Armenian, Greek or Kurdish were neglected and undesirable languages in our country, Mehmet Fatih Uslu learned Armenian for his academic work and introduced Yesayan to us through his meticulous translations into Turkish. Uslu, who for a long time sought an answer to the question, “Had Yesayan been writing in Turkish in the first quarter of the century, what kind of language would she have used?” said, “This anxiety may seem exaggerated to some, but Ms. Zabel was to return home after a century, and I believed that establishing this language was an opportunity to bring us closer to her world/truth.” Thus, Uslu presented what are perhaps the most important reasons for us to know of and read from Yesayan.

With each painstaking translation and each reading of her work, Zabel Yesayan, the only woman on a list of more than 200 Armenian intellectuals to be "exterminated" in 1915, and one of the few survivors of the thousands of tragedies that followed, returns to the home from which she was wrenched…

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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