The days full of excitement following the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era, a generation of women, who were a lot more active and determined compared to their predecessors, organized, and mobilized among private spheres or in groups/associations around access to universities and a wide range of professions/vocations, becoming medical doctors, engineers, or scientists, and gaining social and political rights – thus started the Nisaiyyun [derived from Ottoman word for woman, nisa, meaning relating to women] movement.

In this article, I would like to touch upon and make note of the women’s movement that came into existence during first days of the Second Constitutional Era (1908), which coincides with the years Nezihe Muhiddin started to be active; and the social environment that gave rise to the Kadınlar Halk Fırkası [Women’s People Party] in 1923.

Nezihe Hanım passed away due to a heart attack on February 10, 1958, at Şişli (La Paix) Hospital at the age of 68. Her year of birth is stated as 1305 in an interview from 1955. If we were to convert the year 1305 from the Greek calendar, it corresponds to 1899-1900 in the Roman calendar. [1]

Nezihe Muhiddin witnessed the great transformations that shook the world and Turkey, world wars, fall of empires, revolutions. She was a women’s rights activist and an author. In half a century, she penned hundreds of articles, stories, prose [prose poetry], theater plays, operetta, novels, novellas, fantasy, translations, letters, speeches, and press releases. She was appointed as the director of Kız Sanayi Mektebi [school of arts for girls], followed by Selçuk Hatun Sultanisi [Selçuk Hatun High School] at a young age. When the reporters –probably without an appointment– rang the doorbell to her house on Mis Sokak [a street in Beyoğlu, Istanbul], they had to wait for a long time outside the door and were greeted by Nezihe Hanım in her robe de chambre writing her latest novel Komşumun Yelpazesi [2]- [My Neighbor’s Fan]. Since she did not hear well, one of the reporters leaned towards her ear to tell her that they wanted to interview “a longstanding and invaluable celebrity of our country”. She replied, estağfurullah [don’t mention it]. She added that she started writing on education and the “improvement of women’s lives at the age of nineteen, and got them published in İkdam [Footsteps], during the time of now-departed Cevdet Bey [3], and in Peyam-ı Sabah [Morning News]”; and that she still continues to work on these issues.

She started organizing at an early age, too. Nezihe stood out with her writing and speeches during the most exciting days of the era of freedom following the July 1908 Revolution. Within the pluralist structure of the women’s movement, which gained traction with the revolution, women’s demand for rights came into focus when compared to the earlier periods. This movement was called Nisaiyyun [feminism]. The Ottoman-Armenian women’s movement– which was brought to light thanks to the labors of Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, Melissa Bilal, and Hazal Halavut; the suffragette movements in Great Britain and the United States; and women’s awakening in Russia had a great impact on how it spread among women from Turkey.

Post-July 10: Launch of the Nisaiyyun movement

The “liberty” environment created with the July 10, 1908 Revolution was followed by civil disobedience actions the next day, demanding lifting censorship. The second day of the civil disobedience actions made it possible for around 300 newspapers and journals/magazines, including women’s newspapers and journals/magazines, to be published freely, without any permit.

The morning of July 11, the newspapers had already printed their second editions. İkdam [Effort] newspaper had sold 40 thousand copies. The same civil disobedience action gave way for tens of associations, including women’s associations, to be formed, without waiting for the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations [cemiyetler] to pass in Meclisi Mebusan [Chamber of Deputies].

Newspapers reporting on the first days of the Constitutional Era talk about how –women-men-children, Christian Muslim, Kurdish, Circassian– people from all socio-economic classes celebrated devr-i hürriyet [the era of freedom]. These early days are marked with ideals of and enthusiasm for brotherhood and co-existence. The newspapers printed around those times talk about masses of people leaving their neighborhoods and marching towards Babıâli. Crowds applauding one another when their marches cross each other, chanting slogans Hürriyet, Müsavat, Uhuvvet [freedom, equality, brotherhood], and livening up the streets with songs and anthems. They described that people joined in on these tenezzühs [marches] by applauding people on the street from their house windows, and the festive atmosphere went on for weeks, and months – to the point that women from poor, marginalized neighborhoods, located far from the center of the city, got together with their children, other women neighbors and relatives, and left their neighborhoods to go to Babıâli for the first time in their lives. It is said that they would stop by the roads to take breaks and to eat their packed lunches, and that they would bargain with the coachmen to hitch a ride and shorten the distance. These women, who were not literate, must have felt that the “equality” and “liberty” atmosphere would bring a touch of ease and comfort to their lives, which were being crushed under unfavorable circumstances.

During these days full of excitement, a generation of women, who were a lot more active and determined, organized, and mobilized among private spheres or in groups/associations around access to universities and a wide range of professions/vocations, becoming medical doctors, engineers, or scientists, and gaining social and political rights – thus started the Nisaiyyun movement. They frequently underlined the need for women’s conditions to change to ensure societal development. They warned the authorities to take up reforms concerning women as soon as possible. In 1912, Zekiye wrote: “A political revolution is not sufficient to address the challenges of national progress, the required components of progress are achieved through transformations in intellectual thought and society. We have to appreciate the value of this era of liberty, and start working to prove our progress.”

Nezihe Muhiddin was part of a groups of women leaders/feminists, who made three substantial moves during this new era. These were the steps of the struggle to exist in public sphere:

  1. Partaking in press
  2. Associative life/Organizing
  3. Educating women and obtaining vocations.

Press move

There was a buzz among educated women, and intelligentsia: they were to form associations, write for women’s journals/magazines, send letters and articles to daily newspapers stating their opinions, go outside freely, without any restrictions, and take action hoping women will benefit from this liberty atmosphere surrounding them.

There were many influential women contributing to the buzz: Emine Semiye, Fatma Aliye, Şair Nigâr Hanım contributed with their writing; Selma Rıza (sister of Ahmet Rıza Bey, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, died in 1931) with her activities to improve women’s education; Halide Edib with her novels, articles, translations, and stories. Whereas, Zekiye wrote about the conditions and demands of women in Kadın journal in Thessaloniki; while Nezihe Muhiddin (Muhlis) and Şükufe Nihal, Müfide Ferit (Tek) wrote speeches, prose, poetry, and novels; Abdülhak Mihrünnisa (Tarhan) wrote poetry; Fatma Fahrünnisa Hanım (the granddaughter of Hürrem Hanım, who is the daughter of Ahmet Vefik Paşa, writer at Hanımlara Mahsus Gazete [Newspaper for Women]) organized activities. Nezihe Kerim [4], in one of her articles, openly asked the important question addressed to the authorities: “Yes, us, the women, what about us? Is our existence and lifestyle appropriate to the century we live in?”

Almost every newspaper and journal/magazine started to include a women’s page or a column, under different titles, such as Hanımlar için kısm-ı mahsus [part dedicated to ladies], Hanımlar Kısmı [ladies’ section], Hanımlar Sahifesi [Ladies’ Page]; and announced that they will be publishing women’s work, encouraging them to write and submit articles, letters, and other pieces. The newspaper director’s emphasis on Hanım [Lady] was a way for them to express that they welcomed the actions and articles of women with enthusiasm and respect. Nevertheless, we know from other studies on this subject that the Kadın [Woman] magazine, published in Thessaloniki in October 1908, is an important example of the transition from “lady” to “woman”.


A humorous drawing from that period showing Nezihe Muhiddin talking about the Women’s Union. February 8, 1928: 1.

During the first days of the Constitutional Era, Emine Semiye wrote about the need to “establish women’s associations as part of our thrilling revolution”. It would not be right to apply categories used today and divide the women’s associations of the time into two categories, as women’s charities and women’s rights associations – as if they are independent from one another. These associations had a two-pronged approach to their programming. Apart from charity and solidarity, almost all associations strived towards women’s access to the public sphere and advancing rights for women. Although it may not be explicit in their programs, their founders and activists led their activities concerning advancement of women’s rights through these associations. Forming associations also proved to be a method for women to resist being locked up at home, and restrictions imposed on them in the public sphere. These associations made their presence in the public sphere undisputedly accepted by the society, while they organized charity, aid, and social solidarity activities. They have also paved their way into political platforms.

As reported in the Kadın magazine, “the associative women of Thessaloniki” were pioneers of a number of women’s associations: Teali-i Vatan Osmanlı Hanımları Cemiyeti [Ottoman Women’s Organization for the Advancement of the Fatherland], whose founder and president was Nesime Yusuf Hanım, the of mother of Latife Bekir Çeyrekbaşı; and Osmanlı Kadınları Şefkat Cemiyyet-i Hayriyyesi [Ottoman Women’s Compassionate Philanthropic Society] etc.…  On the other hand, they learned about getting a profession, public administration, laws, the flow of information among women, connecting with women of the world, in short, getting stronger in every field and gaining experience. They understood in their own practice how the rights movement should be run. They approached politics, literature, art and the professions and educational opportunities they were deprived of. They addressed the talaq-ı selase [Islamic divorce] –realized by the male spouse pronouncing “talaq/ I divorce you” three times– and its deprivation of women of any rights by carrying out activities that helped women who were left on the street, alongside the spouses of the martyrs, to find a job and gaining a profession. They established orphanages. They opened literacy, vocational and language courses for women.

In women’s associations, they worked in solidarity with each other, without using the hierarchical models of men– instead applying the imece model [communal work] and methods of cooperation at home and in the neighborhood. Beyond associations, they were organized into initiatives, small groups, circles. They provided logistical support behind the front lines in the Balkan Wars: They worked as a nurse at their homes, behind the fronts, established workshops to sew military clothing and cloth supplies, collected donations, supported the wives of martyrs and migrant women. Nezihe Muhiddin was among the women who turned their homes into a hospital to care for the injured and a workshop to provide medical supplies– she turned her school into a hospital.

Moreover, Serpil Çakır’s research revealed that she was among the founders of the Osmanlı Türk Hanımları Esirgeme Derneği [Association for the Protection of Ottoman Turkish Ladies] (1912-13) and was elected secretary general. As reported in the journals/magazines of that era, Nezihe’s “diligence, as if she is exerting all her presence to her work, gave more strength to this association and attached its members to its aspirations more. There was a common article in these associations’ bylaws: political autonomy. The bylaws of the Osmanlı Türk Hanımları Esirgeme Derneği attest to how much the women’s movement was invested in political autonomy. The Osmanlı Müdafaa-i Hukuk-i Nisvan Cemiyeti [Association for the Defence of the Rights of Ottoman Women)] (1914) continued its activities in this spirit. Nezihe Hanım was also active in the Donanma Cemiyeti Kadınlar Kısmı [Women’s Section of the Naval Society] alongside the Esirgeme Derneği [Organization for the Protection of Women].

Education move, obtaining a vocation

Education of women was among the most important areas of focus for the women’s rights defenders of the Second Constitutional Era. Conferences took place at homes, and initiatives were taken to increase literacy among women. Educational activities of women’s associations continued without a pause. Education was an indispensable part of the advancement of womanhood.

Despite the hidebound, conservative, Islamist masses that claimed, “it’s a sin to send girls to school”, highschools for girls and İnas Darülfünunu [Women’s University] were founded in 1914. Among their first graduates were feminists who were active in press. Independent conferences for women were launched on February 7, 1914. Hukuk-ı nisvan [women’s rights] were also on the conference program. There were around 500-600 participants in each session. When the conference attracted a lot of media attention, the students, and graduates of the Darülmuallimat-ı Aliye [Higher Teachers’ School for Girls] submitted a request to the Ministry of Education to establish a university for women. The İnas Darülfünunu [Women’s University] was inaugurated on September 12, 1914, using a part of Zeyneb Hanım Mansion. The movement led by one of the first students of this Darülfunun [University], Şükûfe Nihal, paved the way for a coeducational university. With the “why can’t women become medical doctors?” campaign led by young graduates of the İnas Darülfünunu, like Aliye Esat (Pirigil), women students were granted access to Medical School.

Women were recruited to positions at government agencies and post offices, which were now vacant because men started going to fight a war. The number of women working at factories and workshops increased as well.

The rising momentum of the Turkist/nationalist movement post-1912 caused the women’s movement to stand by them. This interaction’s history awaits further studies.

Womanhood narrative of men

We should not forget to talk about the Modernist men who were women’s allies in the women’s rights struggle. A critical part of the literature I will be drawing from under this category, “womanhood narrative of men”, is written by pro-liberties, pro-progress male authors. Although they were not easily giving up on their patriarchal privileges in their private lives, young men who received their degrees from institutions in Europe were defending and promoting women’s rights – which was an important characteristic of the era. At times, the women’s struggle collaborated with this movement, at others, it kept a distance from them. There was almost no male author who did not mention their views for or against women’s rights, when womanhood was a hot debate topic. There were male writers/authors who published using women’s names as aliases, or who created publications to promote women’s rights. This phenomenon was known as the ism-i müstearlar [aliases] issue; and it brought feminists and other thinkers’ criticisms upon them. Young male writers, authors, intelligentsia created a substantive literature that inspired women in Turkey, by writing a series of articles on the gains of the feminist movement in the US; and, how the suffragettes were organized and continued their struggle. This can be interpreted as the new generation of men rising against the old system. The term müdafaa-i hukuk-ı nisvan [Protection of women’s rights] became one of the most employed mottos. And a generation of men who advocated for the rights of women, and feminism, and called themselves “feminist” was born.

I think that examining the reasons for the emergence of this literature will contribute to social and political history. Examining this literature, which aims to determine the existence of women in the public and private spheres, will help us understand the details of our women’s history, which suffers from a lack of data. We can think of the “womanhood narrative of men” category as a scale that has conservative, radical Islamists on the far right, and opens to modernist, feminist and socialist, libertarian male intellectuals the more you go left. I believe this category, which covers all currents of thought, including anarchism, holds a distinctive place in women’s history, both as a classification and research field, in terms of its interaction with women, including women’s responses to its constituents.

It wasn’t long before conservatives, Islamists started to retaliate against this dizzying dynamism. The journals like Sebilürreşad [corresponding to the true path in Islamic terminology] contributed to the growing body of literature by publishing hundreds of misogynistic articles – spanning from theses that “schooling” and the concept of “freedom/liberties” could not be applied to women, to demanding authorities to look into the changing way of how women dress (implying women’s clothes are becoming more ‘revealing’), to ban them from having any professions. They tried to stop the Nisaiyyun movement by accusing feminist men of “indolence, ignorance” etc. They underlined that they would never compromise on family and women. Selma Rıza had to face the attacks of the “fortress of bigotry” while working with Emine Semiye to establish a women’s highschool. His writings hardened during the “31 March disaster/disaster” that lasted for fifteen days. The tone of these authors toughened during the 15 days of the “31 March incident/disaster”. Emine Semiye’s club, along with other women’s associations, were destroyed to the ground by aggravated mobs/crowds of people on March 31, 1909 – marking the end of the era of liberty.

But women continued with their struggle. The women’s groups that launched the transformation organized mass demonstrations against pro-Constitutionalist authors who wrote against women. For instance, they found them sitting on benches in parks where they took their lunch break, and asked them: “Why are you writing pieces against us?”. They argued with them over this subject, and tried to convince them otherwise, and to stop writing such pieces. Later on, the students of İnas Darülfünunu adopted this method of face-to-face and one-on-one action to make their voices heard.

Transformations in everyday life

There were significant changes taking place in women’s lives during this period. Women responded to the heavy control and bans on their clothes and being in public during the II. Abdülhamid era, where his pan-Islamist character became apparent, by throwing their niqabs into air, and retailoring their abayas into shorter cloaks/capes.

It was quite a la mode among urban women to show their curls. The women –who were taken to police detention and fined for the diaphanousness of the niqabs, and the short length of the abayas, and who were thrown out of their homes overnight when their male partners uttered “üçten dokuza boş ol!” [as per Islamic law, the husband can divorce from his wife by repeating the word “boş ol/i divorce you” three times at intervals of three, totaling nine times]– were now resisting against the oppression.

A generation of women who waited– standing with a pitcher and a cup in hand, and a napkin on her arm – for their partners to return home were replaced by rebellious young women who have witnessed their mothers’ lives.

Short hair and short skirts became fashionable among women; young modernist men joined this movement by shaving their mustaches in protest. Try to imagine how much ink the printed press used up to cover these stories…

Literature in the II. Constitutional Era: “A young and joyous laughter”

On the nascent literature of the Constitutional Era and its authors, Halide Edib wrote: “The moment when the revolution [constitutionalism] lifted the heavy weight on the shoulders, and the locks on the lips, of Turks, their genuine and lively humor has become the most distinct character of Turkish literature – a youthful and cheerful laughter. The humor of an oppressed society is most peculiar.”

Nezihe Muhiddin grew up during this period, and her life, writing, and self-reflection is imbued with humorous elements. Although Nezihe confesses that she has not reached the level of command Halide Edib has over literature, whom she admires, she was a strong woman of letters.  There were times when her outspokenness, as part of her contentious character, was perceived to be crossing the line. In the press, she responded to being mocked and held in contempt by making fun of herself. She announced that she really liked the cartoons depicting herself, and that she laughed out loud at them. Following the establishment of the Kadın Birliği [Women’s Union], there were following remarks circulating in the press that employed “Imagine if she were a man!” line of humor. To which, Nezihe replied: “Who cares, I could be considered a man, we are all (hu)man after all”. The press was exceedingly interested in her colorful personality, humor, and emphasis on freedom. She followed the movement launched in the West where women wore suits and a tie [5] to prove that she can transgress any limit.

She braved out the defamation campaign against her with the novels and writings she published after 1929. She likened the actions against her to “drying the sap of a tree”. She did not shy away from writing about suspension from the Women’s Association, and that the act was against “a woman’s honor, dignity and virtue”. Her struggle and resistance to exist in society was to give other women a message on freedom.

As we are drawing towards the end of the notes, I shall leave the floor to Nezihe Muhiddin, and quote from the closing of the last interview she gave…

(Reporter) – Madam, I said. In your life, you have seen many periods of this country. Is there progress here? What do you think?

The famous author, smilingly replied:

– Ah my child, don’t get me started on this subject.

[1] We do not have any other data regarding her identity information at the moment. We are waiting for Mizyal Karaçam Şengil, one of her third-generation grandchildren, a historian of the revolution, to publish her book in which she will convey her family information.

[2] Most probably not published.

[3] Oran, died in 1935.

[4] Cannot access her biography.

[5] As told by Serdar Soydan in “Nezihe Muhiddin: Gökkuşağının altında” [Nezihe Muhiddin: Under the rainbow], K24, April 11, 2019.

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

Translator: Deniz İnal

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan


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