Turkish Feminism – Fatma Aliye in the Late Ottoman Empire

Knowledge is one of the benefits which the very magnificent God, the possessor of knowledge and superiority, granted to his slaves all together both men and women.”     Fatma Aliye

Fatma Aliye (Hanim/Topuz)
Fatma Aliye (Hanim/Topuz)

Historians of the Turkish Republic generally look to the years after the 1908 Young Turk revolution until the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s, i.e. the Second Constitutional Era, when discussing female activism in politics and culture. True, it is between these landmarks that Turkish feminism began to gather momentum. However, by limiting scholarship to this period, one misses important strands of thought that had a significant impact on the intellectual trends that came afterwards. One of these strands was the work of Fatma Aliye, considered by many the first female writer in Turkey, perhaps across the Caliphate and Islam itself. While there are previous examples of both Turkish female publications, such as Zafer Hanim’s 1877 work Ask-I Vatan (Motherland Love), and Turkish feminism, such as in the works of Young Ottoman reformist Namik Kemal, Fatma Aliye was certainly the first with such a broad scope of ideas and range of publications on issues ranging from education, to marriage, to European critical theory. This article attempts to highlight, firstly, the impact of her life on her work, secondly, the themes of her work itself, and thirdly, its connection to wider themes of modernity and liberalism in the Ottoman Empire, and feminism on a global scale. It aims to suggest that Fatma Aliye was not actually a feminist as such, more of a social commentator who focused on gender. Scholars of critical theory and gender studies will recognise that there is a significant difference.

An Intellectual Curiosity

Fatma Aliye’s later literary career was defined by her early life and the local context of her upbringing. If historians are wrong in assessing that female intellectualism did not exist pre-1908, they might be more on track by suggesting that it was only accessible to the elite. Fatma Aliye could hardly have come from a more intellectually stimulating background. She was the daughter of Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, an Ottoman political official with an impressive career. He headed the Mejelle commission, which codified Islamic law, was a member of the council of the Tanzimat which had pushed through modernisation reforms in the mid-nineteenth century, and had served as a diplomat and agent in Albania, Bosnia, Egypt and Greece. He encouraged his family to be intellectually curious, an attitude that rubbed off on both of his daughters. Not only did Fatma Aliye develop into an immensely successful writer for her time, her sister Ermine Semiye became a figurehead of Turkish feminism in the Second Constitutional Era and a prominent member of the revolutionary Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

By all accounts, Fatma Aliye had a never-ending enthusiasm to learn as a child, which defined her intellectual pursuits as an adult. Feeding off her family’s encouragement, she shared lessons with her brother – again an uncommon activity in late Ottoman Turkey – and secretly taught herself French, until her father found out and hired her a tutor. As a late teen, she was arranged to marry Mehmet Faik Pasha, an aide to Sultan Abdulhamid II, and a man of significantly lower intellect than herself. At first he was critical of her studies and forbad her from reading literature in languages other than Turkish. However, several years into their marriage he relented, and from thereon in, Fatma Aliye and her husband would translate works together and enjoy relative intellectual harmony. This platform gave her support in the 1890s to pursue a literary career that would catch the attention Ottoman writer and reformist Ahmed Midhat Efendi, who served as her tutor and collaborator.

Literary Career and Philosophy

Fatma Aliye is considered a pioneer in the construction of the Ottoman novel and wider Ottoman literature for two reasons; firstly, because she was a woman; and secondly, because of the content of her work. Her writings encompass many themes, focusing on the everyday lives of, and the politics and social structures surrounding, Ottoman women and their identity. A trend of individualism becomes apparent in her work, via the creation of strong heroines in her novels, and self-determination arguments in her essays, arguing that women, through education and social integration, can become powerful within the socio-political structures of Islam. Ahmed Midhat Efendi commended Fatma Aliye’s early publications in novel form, but it was through journalism that she gained significant public exposure. For 13 years, she wrote for the Hanimlara mahsus gazete, which translates to ‘Ladies’ Own Gazette’, in which she published lead articles on women’s education, the nature and role of marriage in society, and comparative studies of women in Christianity and Islam. Throughout her work, Fatma Aliye retained the idea that Islamic conservatism was a fundamental feature of society, and so her theories and ideas on the role of women were moulded around traditional gender-related concepts.

‘Muhazarat’ (1892)

Translating as ‘Debates’ or ‘Useful Information’, Fatma Aliye’s 1892 work Muhazarat drew on her own experiences of education as a girl in the late Ottoman Empire, and of arranged marriage, to tackle issues of female identity within what she considered to be Islamic patriarchy. In the work, Fatma Aliye argued that the accumulation of knowledge was fundamental to the promotion of the feminine form, and that only through education would women find a just place in society. Further on female identity, she then discussed two concepts, suicide and marriage, to defend Islamic conservatism but promote education as a means of understanding Islam and its message. Her initially strong heroine commits suicide when her social gender identity conflicts with her place in family life, sending mixed messages to the reader about Fatma Aliye’s views on both escapism and Islamic patriarchy. She concludes, agreeing with previous works by Ahmed Midhat Efendi, that love is insufficient as the sole prerequisite for marriage, and that the union of man and woman should be as much a social phenomenon as a personal one.

‘Let us take warning from the bluestockings!’ (1895)

Fatma Aliye’s article on educated European women, featured as a lead article in Hamimlara mehsus gazete, hailed the success of female writers in Christian countries. The ‘bluestockings’ as a phrase originated in 17th century Venice, as a mark of the educated woman, but became synonymous with a group of late-18th and early 19th century female writers, and educated women in the period more generally. In her article, Fatma Aliye displayed her true thoughts on feminism and liberalism, praising the ‘wit and erudition’ of learned Christian women, whilst at the same time criticising them for losing track of their place in society. Her Islamic conservatism, or perhaps reformist conservatism if that is not an oxymoron, is apparent here. She concluded, “Ottoman women should pursue literacy and wide knowledge but still behave like proper ladies who know their places”.

‘Nisvan-I Islam’ (1896)

Translating as ‘The Women of Islam’, Fatma Aliye’s 1896 work transcribes three debates she had with European women in Istanbul. The subjects of the conversations focus mainly on differences in society and politics between Islam and Christianity, and built on the arguments presented in her ‘bluestockings’ article published the year previously. In ‘The Women of Islam’, Fatma Aliye further defended Muslim female self-determination within traditional and conservative structures, arguing that education should help society to understand, and not overthrow, itself. The extended essay granted Fatma Aliye her first international exposure, when the work was presented at a literary festival in Chicago as part of an exhibition of women’s publications from across the globe.

Conclusion

This paper will conclude with a quote from the second piece discussed above, Fatma Aliye’s ‘Bluestockings’ essay. The excerpt summarises her philosophy adequately, upholding the traditions of Islam whilst actively pushing for further gender intellectual equality:

“Men, when they start to enter that treasure house [of knowledge] are envious of the women following them and want to keep from them the jewels of the treasury. It is as if they obstinately wish to see their right of precedence as a right of property. This is one of those things that has been and always will be. Knowledge is one of the benefits which the very munificent God, the possessor of knowledge and superiority, granted to his slaves all together both men and women.”

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