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A Republican Rebel

Nezihe Muhiddin

"Why is it that the Turkish woman is equal in the eyes of the law and like any other citizen must pay taxes, yet does not have the right to vote and be elected to office?"

Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958) was, like most educated women of her time, the daughter of a government official. She wrote 20 novels and was chief editor of the weekly Kadin Yolu (Woman's Path, 1924-1927) magazine. She advocated the repeal of legal codes governing Islamic divorce and polygamy. She demanded that all barriers to education and working life be removed. To ask whether women were capable of assuming social positions was a "disgrace to women".

In May 1923 Muhiddin and a group of activists applied to establish a Women's Party, to pursue the political and social rights of women. Their application was refused. Thus the Turkish Women's Union, a non-governmental association under Muhiddin's leadership, was set up and continued to press for political equality. In 1927 the Union decided to promote a feminist male candidate to champion women's rights in parliament. As Muhiddin told Cumhuriyet on 20 June 1927, the aim was to "steer public opinion."

It was a risky strategy: by that time, Turkey had become a one-party state with no organised political opposition. After a meeting with Ataturk in July 1927, the Union's tentative candidate Kenan Bey withdrew his candidacy. In August 1927, the regional governor issued a search warrant against the Women's Union, and brought charges of corruption against its leader. The Women's Union was suspended, and its documents seized. When Muhiddin called the Union's members to an extraordinary congress, the police commissioner prevented it from going ahead. Muhiddin and others resigned. Muhiddin was to stand trial for violating the law of associations.

In 1935, the association led by Muhiddin disbanded 'voluntarily' after it had hosted an international congress on women's issues. In the parliamentary session granting suffrage to women in 1934, speakers pointed to "suffrage as important for democracy, since only non-democratic regimes withheld women's suffrage." In fact, Turkey in 1934 was a one-party state, in which very few decisions were taken in the Grand National Assembly. The women who were chosen as members of the Assembly were selected, not elected. As Turkish scholar Yesim Arat noted:

"The Kemalists felt that the public realm belonged to the modernizing state and neither autonomous woman's organizations nor other similar organizations could be tolerated. The women, satisfied with the new rights they had been bestowed, acquiesced."

In the official history written by Afet Inan Ataturk ve Turk Kadin Haklarinin Kazanilmasi (Ataturk and the attainment of Women's rights) Muhiddin is absent. A recent study concluded:

"Through the initiative of Nezihe Muhiddin, women did fight for their rights, including political rights, and sought full equality. Women's struggle was suppressed, Nezihe Muhiddin was silenced and the founding fathers could claim a tabula rasa over which they could rewrite women's history as the granters of women's rights."

Nezihe Muhiddin ended her days as an unknown figure in a mental institution in 1958.

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