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The Ottoman Women's Movement

Early feminists

"Pay attention to every corner of the world, we are the eve of a revolution. Be assured, this revolution is not going to be bloody and savage like a man's revolution. On the contrary, it will be pleasant and relatively quiet, but definitely productive. You must believe this, ladies!"

(Fatma Nesibe, Istanbul 1911)

In late 19th-century Ottoman society a small circle of educated women started to become involved in public debates about women's rights. Women graduating from the first secondary schools for girls or educated by private tutors fought for greater access to education. Arguments were presented in utilitarian terms: since the family was the foundation of the country, and the mother the foundation of the family, her intellectual development was key to the development of the country.

Women's journals emerged to provide a public forum for the discussion of women's issues. In Terakki-i Muhadderat (Progress of Muslim Women, 1869-1870), writers discussed female education, polygamy and problems of discrimination. Other journals followed: Vakit yahud Murebbi-i Muhadderat (Time or the Training of Muslim Women, 1875), Ayna (Mirror, 1875 – 1876), Aile (Family, 1880), Insaniyet (Humanity, 1883).

Following the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, a new magazine, Kadinlar Dunyasi (1913-1921) clearly stated its purpose as "promoting women's legal rights." It was outspoken:

"Let us confess: today a woman lacks the rights to live and be free … her life is dominated by a father, a maternal or paternal uncle, a husband or a brother who takes advantage of traditions and customs. It is impossible for her to set a goal or an ideal for herself." (1914)

Educated women from the middle and upper classes also organised conferences such as the ten 'white conferences' held in 1911 in Istanbul. These 'white conferences', named after the white interiors of the mansion where they took place, involved some 300 women. The proceedings were reported in journals of the time. The keynote speaker, Fatma Nesibe, stated in one of the meetings:

"We should look for the causes of our disasters in our stupid mothers. They had pity, they were tender and peaceful, and they did not like noise. Such a blind politics is this… Women are nothing more than a tool of pleasure."

Aynur Demirdirek describes Fatma Nesibe:

"Fatma Nesibe, in her detailed discussion of Stuart Mill in one of her lectures, reveals her considerable knowledge about the women's movement in the West. … Fatma Nesibe defines women as the oppressed sex and as a group whose existence should be developed for the happiness of society. This approach shapes her demands; she is one of those rare women who do not compromise in formulating policies exclusively for women."

In 1921 Nimet Cemil published an article under the title Yine feminism, daima feminism (Again feminism, always feminism). She summed up a sense of growing impatience:

"Although, due to the feminist movement of the last five or ten years, some rights were acquired, we were not able to reach our goal. There are still some important rights to acquire. Especially in marriage, women's legal rights are far behind men's legal rights. How can a woman who does not even have the right to see and meet her prospective husband be an equal of a man who can divorce his wife any time he wants or who is completely free to take another wife while already married to one? If you approach this issue from a woman's perspective, you can easily understand how tragic it is."

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