New Perspectives on Modernity, Nationalism, and Muslim Women in the Late Ottoman Period

in Aspasia

Review essay by Selin Çağatay

Meral Harmancı McDermott, Bastırılanın geri dönüşü: Tanzimat’tan Cumhuriyet’e kadın oyun yazarlarında toplumsal cinsiyet (Return of the repressed: Gender in women playwrights from the Tanzimat to the Republic), Istanbul: Habitus Kitap, 2016, 318 pp., TRY 26 (paperback), ISBN: 978-6-05463-046-2.

Yavuz Selim Karakışla, Osmanlı Imparatorluğu’nda savaş yılları ve çalışan kadınlar: Kadınları Çalıştırma Cemiyeti (1916-1923) (Women, war, and work in the Ottoman Empire: Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women [1916-1923]), Istanbul: iletişim Yayınları, 2015, 408 pp., TRY 33 (paperback), ISBN: 978-9-75051-857-7.

The Turkish-language scholarship on women in the late Ottoman Empire is flourishing as a diverse range of sources become available to researchers. A growing number of publications that look into more specific realms of women’s participation in public life also provide an opportunity to reassess the findings of early feminist research on women’s public participation in the late Ottoman and early republican eras.1 The two recently published books I review here are examples of such research. Bastırılanın geri dönüşü: Tanzimat’tan Cumhuriyet’e kadın oyun yazarlarında toplumsal cinsiyet (Return of the repressed: Gender in women playwrights from the Tanzimat to the Republic), by Meral Harmancı McDermott, examines the ways in which women dramatists intervened in the discussions on gender in the late Ottoman intellectual sphere. Investigating the life experiences of poor women in Istanbul, Yavuz Selim Karakışla’s Osmanlı Imparatorluğu’nda savaş yılları ve çalışan kadınlar: Kadınları Çalıştırma Cemiyeti (1916–1923) (Women, war, and work in the Ottoman Empire: Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women [1916–1923]) demonstrates how women’s inclusion in the late Ottoman public sphere was differentiated by their class position. Both books are based on the researchers’ doctoral dissertations and both are the first thorough works on their subject of inquiry.2

Meral Harmancı McDermott’s Bastırılanın geri dönüşü analyzes seven plays written by Ottoman female dramatists between 1883 and 1929. The selected plays, chosen among twenty-three plays of the late Ottoman and early republican periods that focus on gender, indicate the wide range of gender-related topics that women playwrights tackled. Unlike what its title suggests, the book barely gives an account of the early republican period, as the three plays published after the foundation of the Turkish Republic (1923) do not relate much to the political context of the period. A theater and performance arts critic, Harmancı McDermott sets a dual goal for her inquiry into women dramatists: to understand, first, how political changes of the late Ottoman and early republican periods that are germane to modernity, Westernism, and nationalism reflected on social life and gender relations; and second, how women dramatists rendered gender visible in their plays and thereby generated a different, feminine way of seeing in an intellectual field that was dominated by men. Harmancı McDermott scrutinizes each play based on the significance of the text and its author, the transformation of gender relations within the context of the text, and the dramatist’s use of language. Thus, the book is an important contribution to women’s and gender history as well as theater studies.

Bastırılanın geri dönüşü has an introduction, three thematic chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction (14–35), Harmancı McDermott discusses why and to what extent she draws on Western feminist literary theory and analysis that assert the existence of a feminine tradition in writing with specific characteristics such as implicit narrative or hitherto unknown—and therefore nonmasculine—expressions of reality. In her view, the applicability of Western feminist perspectives on literary criticism is questionable, since Ottoman women’s access to education was largely hindered until the twentieth century. Nonetheless, Harmancı McDermott argues, and convincingly shows throughout the book, that women dramatists, even though they adopted similar styles of writing as men, destabilized male dominance in the field of dramaturgy by merely entering the field (31). She draws on Western feminist literary theory and analysis in her evaluation of how female dramatists raised their voices against patriarchal social norms and structures while simultaneously being oppressed by them. But instead of merely reproducing Western feminist perspectives, she develops her own theoretical-analytical point of view by revealing the strategies women dramatists use to redefine a reference field dominated by patriarchal codes. These strategies, which pertain to wording choices, phrasal structures, descriptions, symbolizations, events, plot, and narration, help the dramatists to code an alternative, feminine world that is more peaceful and democratic (31–33).

The three thematic chapters of the book show the various ways in which female dramatists engaged with the question of women’s status in both public and private spheres, a question that irreversibly came up on the Ottoman intellectual agenda with the Tanzimat era (1839–1876) and—especially—with the development of the modern press. Harmancı McDermott examines this engagement using three themes: household relations (chapter 1), conservative norms and values (chapter 2), and political views (chapter 3). The first chapter (36–164) is based on three plays: Vicdanların emri (Command of the consciences, 1929) by Nezihe Muhittin, Hasbıhal (Heart-to-heart talk, 1914) by Mes’adet Bedirhan, and Irşad-ı şebab (True path for the youth, 1918) by Afife Kemal. These plays tackle women’s status in the domestic sphere within the context of modernity and its influence over gender relations. Harmancı McDermott’s analysis shows how the playwrights made visible the oppressive gender relations in the household and searched for ways to transform them. The second chapter (165–216) focuses on the transformation of conservative lifestyles and the contradictions individuals experience in their everyday lives because of the discrepancy between their formal adoption of Westernism and their adherence to traditional norms and values. The two plays examined here, Tesir-i aşk (The love effect, 1883) by Şâir Nigâr and Suad’ın altını (Suad’s gold, 1924) by Şükûfe Sevinç, both illustrate that the ideas around women’s emancipation in the late Ottoman period were associated with Westernism, especially in relation to dress code, family relations, education, public visibility, and economic behavior. The third chapter (217–290) is based on two plays, Bir zalimin encamı (End of a tyrant, 1908) by Fehime Nüzhet and Küçük Cemal (Little Cemal, 1924) by Zeliha Osman, that situate gender-related issues within the changing political context of their periods, namely, the coming of the Second Constitutional Era (1908–1918) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), respectively. These plays demonstrate how women dramatists embraced a nationalist perspective and thereby participated in the processes of Turkish nation building in the late Ottoman public sphere. But they did so from a feminist perspective, as they criticized the political decisions taken from patriarchal points of view and made visible, drawing on women’s life experiences, the possibility of another, more peaceful and democratic, social order.

In her conclusion (289–304), Harmancı McDermott discusses how women dramatists criticized, challenged, and transformed oppressive gender relations in their plays; destabilized the image of the silent woman confined in the domestic sphere; underlined that women were happier when they could decide for themselves; and defended alternative, feminine ways of organizing social relations. Her overall evaluation is that late Ottoman and early republican female dramatists wrote in a fashion that applauded the peaceful and democratic power of femininity (297). Harmancı McDermott highlights that the dramatists used various strategies, namely, reversal, irony, symbolization, production of multiple-theme patterns, obfuscation, use of exaggerated language, and posing questions, which proves the existence of their feminine way of seeing. These strategies enabled them to make statements without openly challenging patriarchy. While the dramatists every so often adopted a didactic tone in their writing, they often produced multiple answers to the questions they posed instead of providing absolute answers. Their use of symbolic, and at times exaggerated, expressions moved the setting away from realism, which provided room for distancing themselves from deeply rooted patriarchal points of view.

The analysis presented in this book is well situated within the greater context of social and political change in the late Ottoman period. Harmancı McDermott evaluates each play vis-à-vis the time period of its publication and its cultural framework, thereby showing how ideas around women’s emancipation evolved progressively from the Tanzimat to the republican eras. Thus, the book challenges, in line with the recent trends in Turkish feminist historiography, the official (Kemalist) discourse that suggests a rupture between the late Ottoman and early republican periods in terms of women’s rights. Thanks to Harmancı McDermott’s critical methodology, the reader can see how women’s literary production negotiated, destabilized, and challenged while at the same time obeyed and reproduced male-dominant styles of writing. Her inclusion of both popular women intellectuals and feminist activists of the late Ottoman and early republican periods (Nezihe Muhittin, Mes’adet Bedirhan, Şâir Nigâr, Fehime Nüzhet) as well as lesser-known women (Afife Kemal, Şükûfe Sevinç, Zeliha Osman) is useful in that it sheds light on the intellectual environment of these eras of feminist activism while simultaneously proving that late Ottoman and early republican feminisms were not limited to a few famous intellectual women but instead involved collective effort invested in women’s emancipation. Harmancı McDermott does not critically reevaluate early feminist scholars’ views on woman intellectuals and activists of the period; she rather confirms and builds on the existing literature. Several issues are under-analyzed in the book. Harmancı McDermott’s examination shows very well the differentiation of women’s experiences with patriarchy based on class and age differences, but she does not discuss the exclusive visibility of one religious (Muslim) and ethnic (Turkish) identity in the works of woman dramatists. This risks contributing to the Turkish-Islamic bias in late Ottoman women’s historiography. Also, essentialist notions of femininity (and masculinity) are visible in all the analyzed plays, but Harmancı McDermott does not critically reflect on this point.

While Harmancı McDermott’s book discusses the changing gender relations mainly in relation to modernity and Westernization, and only partially to nationalism, Yavuz Selim Karakışla’s Osmanli Imparatorluğu’nda savaş yılları ve çalışan kadınlar: Kadınları Çalıştırma Cemiyeti (1916–1923) (Women, war, and work in the Ottoman Empire: Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women [1916–1923]) shows in greater detail the intertwining of nationalism with class, religion, ethnicity, and gender in the late Ottoman context. Published after many years of professorship on the social and economic history of the Ottoman Empire, and a year before the historian’s early death in 2016, Karakışla’s book is the first comprehensive work on the Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women (hereafter, Society), an important women’s organization operating in Istanbul from 1916 to 1923 about which there has been surprisingly very little written. With the aim of integrating the history of Ottoman Muslim women into that of World War I, this book complicates wholesale approaches to “Ottoman women” by explicating that the gains and losses of women in the World War I era differed by class, ethnicity, and religion. It is an outstanding contribution to women’s and labor history.

Osmanlı Imparatorluğu’nda savaş yılları ve çalışan kadınlar has an introduction that situates Ottoman Muslim women’s participation in working life within the greater context of World War I (15–67), five thematic chapters that give detailed information about the Society and look into some of its most important activities, and a conclusion that provides an overall assessment of the findings and arguments offered in the book.3 The thematic chapters include information on the foundation and organizational structure of the Society (chapter 1, 69–112), and the workers and their production in different branches in Istanbul (chapter 2, 113–138). The third chapter (139–187) focuses on the Women Worker’s Brigade that was formed in 1917 within the body of the Ottoman army’s workers’ brigades (amele taburları) and operated until 1919. The aim of this small-scale, short-lived brigade was more to provide for women who did not have access to food, shelter, and even clothes than to supply the Ottoman army with woman personnel. A significant activity organized by the Society was its campaign to marry off its women workers, which showed that women’s employment was, for the Society, not an end in itself but a means to provide poor women with temporary economic support until they could find this support within the family institution (chapter 4, 189–212). Another significant form of activism in the Society concerned war orphans and abandoned children, whose number in Istanbul was on the increase in 1915 and 1916. Thousands of children brought from Anatolia were first sheltered by the Society and then placed, with the assistance of the Ministry of the Interior, either in factories, workshops, or farms where they were given shelter in return for their labor, or in homes in and around Istanbul where they became foster children (evlatlık) or housemaids (besleme) (chapter 5, 213–228).

The conclusion lays out the significance of Ottoman Muslim women’s participation in paid employment during the World War I years (229–248). Karakışla argues that the foundation of state-supported women’s organizations in the late Ottoman period should be read against the characteristic of World War I as a “total war” in that it mobilized not only men who fought in the war but also their societies as a whole. During World War I, the number of Ottoman military casualties was very high, and the economic hardships faced by the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of dead soldiers constituted a big problem. Thus, the main goal of the Society, supervised by the Ottoman army, was for poor women to lead an honorable (namuslu) life by means of participating in working life (230). These women supplied products for the Ottoman army. The Society was eligible to participate in the tenders initiated by the army, and poor women workers with their below-market price for labor became attractive candidates for employment (243). All in all, the Society provided jobs for around fifteen thousand to twenty thousand women. Compared to the number of Muslim women who were among the working-age population and who lived in Istanbul during World War I, the Society provided jobs for 5 percent of the Muslim women in Istanbul (237).4 The Society was not the only organization that worked to provide women with a source of income, but its demographic significance as the biggest employer of women in the entire Ottoman Empire makes it one of the more important organizations, in terms of its economic and societal role, out of the ninety-nine women’s organizations founded between 1879 and 1923 in the Ottoman lands (239).

Karakışla’s findings in this book have two very important implications for women’s and labor history. The first concerns the entanglement of gender and nationalism in women’s activism. The Society’s efforts to marry off its women workers became popular as the campaign involved thirteen ads in a widely read newspaper, Vakit (Time), during 1918. This campaign proved that the traditional gender norms in Ottoman society that required Muslim women to stay home and away from working life, and the taboos that forced girls into arranged marriages were changing (239). At the same time, it was part of the greater Millî aile (National family) campaign that was run by the ruling Ittihat ve Terakki (Union and Progress, ITC) government (206). Modernist perspectives on gender relations went hand in hand with nationalist ideas on women’s activism. Another example of women’s participation in nation building was the Society’s concern with war orphans and abandoned children. A significant number of the children placed in factories, workshops, farms, and homes by the Society were Armenians who survived the genocide. The Society’s activities regarding these children was criticized, especially by the Armenian press and later by the Allied forces that occupied Istanbul following the Armistice of Mudros in 1918, for supporting the ITC’s politics of assimilation and Turkification (216, 246).

The second implication of Karakışla’s findings is that they urge us to rethink the adoption of dominant Western perspectives on women’s participation in public life, particularly in paid employment. Ottoman Muslim women’s experience with paid employment differed in several aspects from the experiences of women in Western countries (such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) who had to enter paid employment in order to replace the men who went to war. Muslim women’s participation in paid employment was far smaller than their counterparts in the aforementioned Western countries. This was because, in the Ottoman case, only Muslim men were allowed at the war front, whereas non-Muslim men stayed and took the positions of Muslim men. During World War I, few non-Muslim women entered paid employment, because the men in their families could still provide for them. Those who looked for jobs and could not find them in the World War I period were mostly Muslim women (59). Thus, Karakışla argues, the Society “created” employment opportunities for women not because the Ottoman economy needed their paid work but in order to protect Muslim women from participating in the prostitution sector that was growing because of the economic difficulties women faced. When the war was over, these women were unemployed not because men who returned from the front took over their jobs but because the Ottoman army no longer needed their products (240–242). After World War I, most women went back home as their male relatives resumed the role of economic provider, while some women switched to other jobs where they could employ the skills they gained while working for the Society. Drawing on these findings, Karakışla concludes that the early feminist scholars’ thesis that women in the Ottoman Empire who participated in paid employment had replaced men, and that this was a means for women’s emancipation, is “romantic” and does not correspond to scientific reality (232). Karakışla thereby refutes a widely held assumption in women’s and labor history that drew on dominant Western perspectives on women’s inclusion in the public sphere.

Taken together, Harmancı McDermott’s and Karakışla’s research shed light on the different ways in which women experienced the social, political, and economic changes in the late Ottoman period based on their class, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Both books question the validity of dominant Western approaches in their respective fields and offer more nuanced, decentered perspectives on women in the context of the late Ottoman public sphere. Showing the entangled histories of modernization, nationalism, and gender relations, both books are invaluable contributions to the Turkish-language body of literature on the history of Ottoman Muslim women, as well as to the disciplines of history, gender studies, and theater studies.


Widely cited examples of early feminist scholarship on women’s public participation include Serpil Çakır, Osmanli kadın hareketi [Ottoman women’s movement] (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 1994); Yaprak Zihnioğlu, Kadınsız inkılap: Nezihe Muhiddin, Kadınlar Halk Fırkası, Kadın Birliği [Revolution without women: Nezihe Mudiddin, women’s People’s Party, women’s Association] (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2003).


Meral Harmancı Turunçoğlu, “Tanzimat’tan Cumhuriyet’in ilk yıllarına kadar var olan kadın oyun yazarlarının metinlerinde toplumsal cinsiyet” (Gender in the texts of female dramatists from from the Tanzimat era to the early years of the Turkish Republic) (PhD diss., Istanbul University, 2013); Yavuz Selim Karakışla, “Women, War and Work in the Ottoman Empire: Society for the Employment of Ottoman Muslim Women (1916–1923)” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2003). Karakışla’s dissertation was later published as a book in 2005 with the same title by Ottoman Bank Archives and Research Center (Istanbul), and in 2015 by Libra Kitap (Istanbul).


An additional section presents original sources, transliterated from Ottoman Turkish script into Latin script, which comprise some documents produced by the Society, articles published in various journals and newspapers about the Society, and state-level administrative correspondence concerning the Society (251–390). This is an important source for researchers who would like to research original documents about the Society but cannot read the Ottoman Turkish script.


This number was also equal to 10 percent of the pre–World War I number of workers in the Ottoman industrial production.

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Contributor Notes

Selin Çağatay received her PhD in comparative gender studies from the Central European University in 2017. Her main research interests include women’s and feminist activism in Turkey and worldwide (with a focus on the Middle East), gender regimes, intersectionality studies, Turkish political history, and women’s paid and unpaid labor. She is currently a visiting professor at the Central European University, Department of Gender Studies, and a junior researcher for the project “ZARAH. women’s labour activism in transnational perspective. Central, South-Eastern, and Eastern Europe from the age of empires to the late 20th century,” run by Susan Zimmermann (Central European University). Email:


The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History