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Dreams beyond control: women and writing in the Ottoman Empire since Asiye Hatun's Diary.

In this paper, we explore a relatively uncharted territory and discuss Ottoman-Turkish narratives by women, which clearly bring out autobiographical female personalities. Autobiography is a genre of self-display and self-assertion, and a very limited number of women in Ottoman times wrote autobiographies, when compared to the vast majority who preferred to use autobiographical details indirectly in their texts. Therefore, we are not concerned with autobiography as we currently understand it, but with the autobiographical impulse which gave rise to different genres in literature. Our explicit focus will cover a dream log by a 17th century female dervish Asiye Hatun, an essay by Fatma Aliye, a prominent writer and women's rights activist, and a novel by Ayse Zekiye, a female intellectual from the early modern period. Asiye Hatun is from Skopje; she recorded her dreams and composed a diary, parts of which are sent in letter form to a Sufi seyh (master). Since its discovery in the archives of manuscripts by Cemal Kafadar, a competent researcher of the Ottoman Empire who is famous in the field of what he calls as "personal writing," the exchange of letters entertains wide acclaim among researchers.

Fatma Aliye (1862-1936) is the daughter of a senior Ottoman bureaucrat and historian Cevdet Pascha and she is credited as the first female Ottoman novelist despite an earlier novel by Zafer Hanim who discontinued writing novels. She is also the first woman to adorn Turkey's banknotes. Ayse Zekiye is a writer and women's rights activist, who was among the contributors to the controversial Salonica periodical Woman. She is the daughter of Abdulkerim Pascha, famous military chief who also served as the governor of Baghdad, Diyarbakir, Erzurum and Salonica. Although texts to be explored here by these women differ strikingly from one another, they also share a common characteristic: in each narrative we find a struggle to construct a female self in written form.

The central question of this essay is whether Ottoman women writers understood the idea of female self as an indication of individualization and subjectivity or if they saw it as communal and indication of inter-subjectivity. Several scholars of Ottoman women's movement and writings such as Reina Lewis, Nicole Van Os etc. have commented on the Muslim-Ottoman subject-hood and the construction of a specific women's movement on top of it. Reina Lewis, in her Rethinking Orientalism, argues that Ottoman women "conceptualized a specifically Eastern vision of emancipation and engaged in a clear-sighted evaluation of the relative merits of occidental liberation" (Lewis 97). Nicole van Os, names this "specifically Eastern vision of emancipation" as ailesel feminizm (family feminism), arguing that women defined their selves within the institution of family and in connection to the role of motherhood (van Os 336). In this picture, female self is unavoidably a matter of inter-subjectivity. There are contrasting views as well: Serpil Cakir, a pioneering researcher of Ottoman women's writings, argues in her influential book Osmanli Kadin Hareketi (The Ottoman women's movement) that a feminist consciousness can be recovered in Ottoman women's struggle for their rights, based on the stories of women who fought for social ideals and identities (Cakir).

Ottoman women's movements need to be examined in greater depth to understand the adaptation of Western norms and manners, redefinitions of family as an institution, and the appraisal of female self. To that end, we will examine the autobiographical impulse in Ottoman women's writing with a gender conscious agenda and relate to several conflicting perspectives in feminism, which comment on women's ego formation and narrative self-construction. Our assertions are based on a broad time spectrum but in the limited space of this paper, we will refer only to three women writers mentioned above, whose texts we believe are important considering their times.

The research from which this paper stemmed is part of a local project based in Turkey, which aims to build an online bio-bibliographical database of women writers of Turkey and, under the ESF umbrella, it is also part of the COST action "Women Writers in History - Toward a New Understanding of European Literary Culture." We seek to recover lost names and also to rehabilitate previously shunned writers of Ottoman-Turkish literature. We are interested in the details of women's lives and how their peculiarities influenced their writing and their fictional female selves. Despite our interest in autobiographical details of women writers for the online database project, we do not completely depend on biographical criticism in our research while exploring texts written by women. Psychoanalytical theories of identification/separation and historicist theories are also of primary importance to our research because we want to understand how women of different generations treated the boundary between their selves and the external world while writing about their lives.

Before we turn exclusively to Ottoman women's writing, a word on the problematic term autobiography is needed. To make clear the Ottoman approach to first person writing, a preliminary discussion on Islamic Middle-Eastern autobiography will follow before we deal more explicitly with feminist theories and the problem of female subjectivity. Robert Folfenflik in The Culture of Autobiography explains that the term was percieved as "the confession of the person to himself rather than a priest" during Romanticism (Folfenflik 7). A more contemporary definition by Philippe Lejeune, writer of the "Autobiographical Pact," emphasizes the "individuality" of the writer: Lejeune says the autobiographer "puts the principal accent upon his life, especially upon the story of his own personality" (Smith/Watson, 2).

For quite a long time, it was a centralized belief that autobiography is by essence a Western literary genre that could only emerge in the social and intellectual atmosphere of European enlightenment, since Eastern cultures lacked an awareness of individuality. It is Augustine's Confessions (4th century) what is accepted as the first autobiography. The view that Augustine is the founding father of autobiography is synonymous with the assumption that autobiography is in essence an aspect of Christian Western civilization. One of the prominent advocates of this view is Georges Gusdorf, who in his seminal article "Conditions and Limits of Autobiography" (1956) observes that autobiography is typical of a society that fosters the "the curiosity of the individual about himself, the wonder he feels about the mystery of his own destiny" (Gusdorf 31). If individualism or curiosity about self is non-existent, Gusdorf believes that it is not likely for autobiography to emerge. It can only be transplanted belatedly.

For those who know Augustine has spent his childhood in North Africa, and that Confessions covers, in part, his memories of a North African childhood, the foundational status of his text in the Western autobiographical tradition becomes a little problematic. Autobiography is already an instable term independent of Augustine's geographical coordinates, because it rests on top of opposites between private and public, subjectivity and objectivity. It becomes more and more unstable when defined on preconditions for individualism because in contrast to post Renaissance Western societies, non-Western societies have different understandings of individualism and even within the same society individuality might be grasped differently by different segments of the society. Self as a separate, stable, and unique phenomenon is problematic and should be carefully explored. Plus, gender research has shown that men and women are socialized into different roles, different patterns of attachment and thus different appraisals of self.

Recent research in autobiography studies shows that non-Western societies have also produced autobiographical texts in many different forms. Bernard Lewis, in a seminal piece entitled "First-Person Writing in the Middle East," refers to pre-Islamic period and gives examples of first-person narratives from Hittite and Assyrian kings and the Sasanid period of pre-Islamic Iran. The examples are telling in the sense that they alert us from outset that the act beneath first-person narrative, the attempt to look at the self as an outsider, is an ancient genre, born to humanity long before the emergence of "individual" in the post Renaissance Western sense of the term. When he moves on to the Islamic period, Lewis gives other examples from royal memoirs, travel literature, captivity stories, stories of mystical experiences and religious enlightenment and he concludes, at the risk of oversimplifying, that the aim of writers of these texts was "[either] to serve oneself, [or] to serve others, [or] to serve posterity" (Lewis 404). These aims, we believe, are not culturally specific. The autobiographical impulse is universal and if carefully explored, many non-Western texts can be shown to share basic characteristics with the canonical European texts unless autobiography is taken as a measure of a radical individualistic quality in culture.

In her introduction to Auto/biography and the Construction of Identity and Community in the Middle East, Mary Ann Fay states that

The Arab understanding of history and historical method as biography exposes the Eurocentric nature of postmodernist claims that the autonomous individual or subject is the creation of Western humanism and the Enlightenment. Any reading of biographies, biographical dictionaries, or the intellectual biographies known as thabat shows that the articulation of the autonomous, knowable, and recoverable self-existed in the Arab-Islamic world before Enlightenment ideas penetrated the intellectual life of the Arab/Ottoman intelligentsia in the nineteenth century (Fay 2).

Jan Schmidt's research in the Collection of Turkish Manuscripts at Leiden University Library shows that autobiographical passages existed in many texts, in introductory sections (mukaddime) of some books, and also in histories and classical poems (kaside and gazel) (Schmidth 2002). Benjamin C. Fortna's 2001 article "Education and Autobiography at the end of the Ottoman Empire" includes a discussion of seven late Ottoman autobiographers among who two important female figures from Ottoman-Turkish literary circles exist: Nigar Hanim (1862-1918) and Samiha Ayverdi (1905-1993) (Fortna 2001).

The emphasis on individualism as a precondition for autobiography reflects a problematic privilege. Paul John Eakin, one of the competent critics of the genre, denies the foundational myth of individual in isolation beneath autobiography saying that "all identity is relational, and that the definition of autobiography, and its history as well, must be stretched to reflect the kinds of self-writing in which relational identity is characteristically displayed" (Eakin 43). Some scholars also indicate that the act to marginalize cultures with less emphasis on individualism resembles men's marginalization of women's writings: Susan Stanford Friedman, for example, underlines in her article "Women's Autobiographical Selves" that "the very sense of identification, interdependence, and community that Gusdorf dismisses from autobiographical selves are key elements in the development of women's identity" (Friedman 38). Here Friedman builds her arguments on feminist psychoanalysts such as Nancy Chodorow, who claims that women are not socialized into a culture of independent and isolated selfhood because they have deep relationships with their children and other women, as a result of the primary relationship with the mother. According to Chodorow, daughters feel less need to separate from their mothers than boys, leading to more fluid ego boundaries and the tendency to define themselves in relation to others (Chodorow 93).

Classical approaches treat the core of individuality as a discrete entity that can be captured as such. Ego is healthy unless it resists separating from others. Both Freud's and Lacan's conceptions of ego suggest individualistic psychoanalytical models. While penis envy provides a basis for anatomical distinction between the sexes, as reflected in Freud's theory of sexuality, Chodorow's approach is on the basis of object relationships and the cultural construction of family dynamics. According to the psychoanalytical theories used by Chodorow the first love object of a child is the mother, and this link is very important in the future development of self. Chodorow challenges the tyranny of biological explanations of gender. Her focus is on the cultural construction of gender during the separation, individuation stage of development. Here interdependence, being connected to other selves, is used in a positive manner.

Luce Irigaray, who thinks women are more inclined toward intersubjectivity, develops a similar line of thought. In Democracy Begins between Two, Irigaray writes that women procreate within their own bodies and they are able to nourish others with their bodies, while men procreate outside of themselves and their bodies are not able to nourish others directly (Irigaray 151). Estelle Jelinek's research supports women's interdependency/intersubjectivity as she notes in her seminal book The Tradition of Female Autobiography that female autobiographical tradition has been marked with childhood memories and family history, more strongly than male autobiographical tradition (Jelinek 13). Following that line of thought, we will elaborate on Ottoman women's literature.

Ottoman women's writing addresses various topics, such as spiritual experiences, slavery, seclusion, sexual and class differences, the veil, and polygamy. While discussing women's subjectivity and the problem of interdependency/intersubjectivity, writers refer to a collectivity, which is not always positive and problem free. Psychological wounds, historical turmoil, hierarchies imposed by the superiority of the West, class and ethnic struggles influence women's look at themselves and other women. To draw general conclusions from specific examples is problematic; nevertheless, we will attempt to show the problematic interdependency/intersubjectivity of women in texts by Ottoman women writers, focusing on a number of early modern writers.

In Ottoman letters a number of subgenres exist under the umbrella term "autobiographical text" and each of these subgenres is important to understand women's experiences. Cemal Kafadar, emphasizes that subgenres such a travelogues, diaries, memoirs, and letters should also be considered as autobiographical writings to the extent that they portray the tensions between the portrayal of self and the external world. All such genres abound with moral tensions and anxieties of representation, which should be examined to recover the experiences of women whose writing stayed on the sidelines of the Ottoman master narrative. Early modern Ottoman literature has limited number of life stories by women: Asiye Hatun's dream letters are rare examples from the pre-Tanzimat period. In his introductory note to the transcription of the medieval document, Cemal Kafadar gives interesting details about Asiye Hatun and her letters. Asiye Hatun is a female Halveti dervish from 17th century Skopje (in modern Macedonia). Her writing indicates that she is competent in Arabic and Persian terminology, so she is probably educated. She is not a conventional figure because she is unmarried, resists marriage proposals, and wants to devote herself to her sufi experience.

As a dervish, she is in the order of some sheik called Veli Dede, but at a certain period in her mystic experience she starts to feel alienated and seeks for alternatives. She discovers another sheik, Muslihuddin Efendi, who is an important mystic of the time, and decides to join his order, but she feels guilty for leaving her former sheik and also unsure about her decision, therefore to validate herself, she writes to another member of the new order, Mehmed Dede. Mehmed Dede confirms that the new sheik is superior and he recommends her to write about her dreams to the new sheik for him to be able to reach her. These are not all dreams in the common sense of the term but some daydreaming is also included. Asiye Hatun starts to correspond with her sheik. The sheik makes comments about the dreams and returns the letters. When the sheik dies, the correspondence continues with his son who replaces him.

One thing that immediately attracts attention in the letters is the way Asiye Hatun refers to herself. While writing about herself, Asiye Hatun abstains from saying "I." She refers to herself as fakire (this poor one) or hakire (this inferior one), both of which are commonly used by sufi people as a sign of their will to diminish themselves. Obviously, Asiye Hatun is trying to become a better sufi, so the text abounds with questions: she is not sure about the representation of her image in the dreams, always hesitant about which of her acts would be better for a dervish. There is a recurring motif of self-doubt in the dream letters and Cemal Kafadar argues that this is a gendered feature of the text, reflecting the subordinate position of the author (Kafadar 20). Asiye Hatun may seem to accept to diminish herself; however, the letters also deliver dreams in which she resists to being subordinate by adopting a masculine lingo and looking down on other women.

In his book Seyh ve Arzu (Sheik and Desire), psychoanalyst Saffet Murat Tura analyses Asiye Hatun's dreams and gives a lengthy discussion of images that appear in the dreams such as mirrors, weddings, and a blind lady etc. Tura underlines Asiye Hatun's seeing herself as the wife and then the child of her sheik in a central dream and concludes that the letters reflect, perfectly well, the fears of Asiye Hatun from her feminine self and her ambivalent attitudes towards her mother (Tura 34). According to Tura, mirrors and devaluation of female images in the dreams might be said to indicate Asiye Hatun's damaged narcissism because of her mother's inadequacy to serve well as the primary love object. Weddings symbolize her desire for her sheik, which put doubt on her sufi intentions and also bring an enormous weight of guilt. The blind lady frightens Asiye Hatun and she positions herself as manly against her. In Tura's analysis all these collapse into the figure of a woman with "narcissistic wounds, secondary oedipal complexes, and penis envy" (Tura 41).

In Asiye Hatun's letters, we see a negative aspect to interdependence, as Tura observes that Asiye Hatun is driven into anger and has negative attitudes against female images in her dreams as a result of her problematic dependence to her mother. The self-doubt in the letters can be evaluated as the outcome, the negative side effect of interdependency: being somewhat "dependent" on other people's view of oneself. Asiye Hatun may be expected to socialize into a female culture of connection, as Chodorow suggests, but what if she cannot find a positive reaction, an approval of her self from other subjects? What if unclear boundaries keep her burdened with hesitations?

Let's move on to our second writer, Fatma Aliye, with those questions in mind. The essay we will discuss here is islam-i Nisvan (1892), which translates as "the women of Islam." It has been translated by Olga de Labedeff, aka Gulnar, into French with the title Les Femmes Musulmanes, and awarded a special price in Chicago Book Fair. An English translation is also said to exist. In this essay, Fatma Aliye attempts to prove that Islam does not lower women's status and therefore tries to challenge Western misapprehensions of the status of women in the Ottoman Empire. The essay centers on the dialogue between Fatma Aliye Hanim and her guests at a dinner party: Madam F and a nun ask questions to their hostess about veil, slavery, status of servants, polygamy and women in general in the Ottoman society. Aliye's answers are supportive of the slavery/servanthood system: she reconstructs the institution in such a way that, instead of structural inequalities, it stands for a positive foundation central to the Ottoman society. Aliye argues that slaves and servants obtain access to education, they are paid for their efforts and that their masters make new life options available to them. The master either pays for the wedding expenses or dismisses the slave after nine years. Servants can appeal to the court if they are treated inappropriately, they can leave the job, and the slaves might ask to be sold to another master etc.

Aliye's reactionary mood shows us another form of a problematic interdependency among women: she sees herself and the women of her society from the perspective of some foreign women and she does not find an approval but a criticism. She therefore escapes to a discourse that attempts to challenge stereotypical images held by outsiders. Aliye's occidental liberation gives us the opportunity to compare Ottoman women's understandings of freedom with that of the European women. It also shows us how difficult it was for Fatma Aliye to connect with Western women of her times without a critical look at her culture. This causes a dilemma of belonging: here we find another wounded self, troubled because of the lack of approval that surrounds the very identity that covers the self. In Fatma Aliye's thought, there is a unified picture under the umbrella term "the women of Islam" but this picture is misleading since it rises on the assumption of identity as an organic whole.

The East-West dualism was not a defining paradigm only for Fatma Aliye. In fact, all intellectuals of the Tanzimat period are influenced from the love and hate relationship felt for Europe and for Western norms and values. There were non-Muslim minorities in the Empire as well, which added another complicated dimension to the question of interdependence among Ottoman women. In her novels, Fatma Aliye deals with Ottoman minorities in a rather degrading manner; she positions them as a threat to Muslim women's happiness. They are femme fatales, evil women of all sorts. Such a look is also available in the key journals of the time by women such as Hanimlara Mahsus Gazete (Journal Exlusively for Ladies), as also observed by Elizabeth Brown Frierson. Frierson examines women's magazines of late Ottoman times and she concludes that immoral acts or crime are almost always part of the story in the newspaper if there is a European women from abroad or a women from the non-Muslim minorities of the Empire included (Frierson 197). The emphasis on "women of Islam" is carried throughout the writing career of Fatma Aliye and her effort to defend Islam lasted until the end of her life. Ironically enough, Zubeyde Ismet, the youngest daughter of Fatma Aliye converted to Christianity in 1926 and left Turkey for France.

In Fatma Aliye's thought there is a unified picture under the umbrella term the women of Islam: dependence on other women becomes problematic only when one of the counterparts is non-Muslim. Ayse Zekiye, the third writer we will examine in this paper, however, shows in her single and unconventional novel Bir Pederin Hatasi (The Mistake of a Father), that there is a problematic interdependence between women of the same religion as well because of economical hierarchies. Ayse Zekiye is an active figure in efforts to educate women and her motive for the book is explained in a journal article as to raise funds for an industrial workroom, which will employ women. Ayse Zekiye also tries her pen in journals of her time, and she mentions women's struggles.

In Bir Pederin Hatasi, Ayse Zekiye discusses polygamy and the relations between women of the same household. The novel focuses on the family of a Pascha of Egyptian origin, whose daughters, one from his wife (Enise) and the other from his slave (cariye) (Fitnat) are constructed as two opposite poles. In contrast to her contemporaries, Ayse Zekiye dresses Fitnat, the daughter of the slave with noble qualities while depicting the other daughter Enise as snobbish, mean, and jealous. The relationships between women in this novel are flammable. The snobbish daughter, who has an elite image, considers her sister and other women, who have lower positions than herself, such as servants and slaves, as threats to her happiness. For servants and slaves there is also an added dimension of sexuality, because they are recognized as sexual threats. Enise's husband rapes the servant and Enise decides to fire the pregnant woman, while the thoughtful sister Fitnat cares for her. Here interdependence is challenged by class differences: class hierarchies make it harder for women to relate to each other. Ayse Zekiye shows disapproval of the elite women who fail to understand the need for women to support each other regardless of the class differences.

All three texts discussed above give us a discussion of the female self and its status in the pre-modern Ottoman Empire. Whether this self is defined and maintained in relationships is a challenging question that can centrally be observed in the texts. All three writers reveal problems of definition and connection: Asiye Hatun is troubled to define herself as a sufi and she seeks connection with her sheik as a substitute "motherly" love object, Fatma Aliye tries to fuse Islam with some--but not too much--Westernization to define her intellectual position and she seeks to connect to her Western counterparts and Ayse Zekiye deals with the problems of definition and connection in a setting of multiple female selves. The principle aim of the women writers explored in this paper was not to write an autobiography per se, but they transcribed their lives on page whether consciously or not, while dealing with the problem of individuality in the context of Ottoman women. Asiye Hatun's dreams tell us a lot about her life; Fatma Aliye's and Ayse Zekiye's writings are also shaped and nurtured by their lives and their problems as individuals. All three texts give us an important precondition for interdependence to work in a positive way: a mutually leveled understanding of each other, a recognition that helps each party to construct a self, without any complexes. If that does not happen, interdependency turns into a clash of selves and identities.

We want to avoid making generalizations about women's lives but we know that commonalities do exist as well as differences. These communalities and differences form the context of human relationships in which identity is created. Pulling the development of "self into this picture is worthy of effort, because it helps us to discuss the influences of culture over psychological development. In the current state, only a small portion of Ottoman women's writings is available in transcription. Several other works are still waiting to be discovered. As our knowledge of Ottoman women's writing expands, we will be able to make more accurate observations on such a subtle corpus. Ottoman women's movement goes hand in hand with Ottoman women's attempts to write; therefore any research that deals with the attempts for liberation in the Ottoman context has to deal with women's role as writers. Women's letters, life-stories, travelogues, and memoirs require attention as well as autobiographies and novels, because all such writing is intimately connected to the big dream of emancipation of Ottoman women, which is the uncontrollable dream we refer in our title. We believe what is discovered until now just represents the tip of the iceberg and Ottoman literature needs to be studied in multiple interacting contexts.


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Ozyegin University, Istanbul


Ozyegin University, Istanbul

Cimen Gunay-Erkol is Assistant Professor of Turkish Literature at Ozyegin University. She got her Ph.D. degree at the Department of Literary Studies, Leiden University in 2008. Power struggles, gender hierarchy, and masculinity as represented in literature constitute the foundation of Gunay-Erkol's scholarly activity to date. She has previously published in journals such as Symposium, European Journal of Turkish Studies, Journal of Turkish Literature. Currently Gunay-Erkol is leading a research project on women writers of Turkey, funded by TUBITAK and also supported by ESF under the COST action titled "Women Writers in History-Toward a New Understanding of European Literary Culture."

Senem Timuroglu received her BA in Turkish Language and Literature from Mimar Sinan University in 1999. In 2002, she submitted her first Master's thesis "A Man of Dreams who Seeks his Personal Myth: Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar" at the Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Paris. She completed her second Master's thesis "The Heroes in the Novelistic Romances of Esat Mahmut Karakurt" at Bilkent University, Ankara, in 2006. She has articles on literature published in various literature journals. She works as a translator and editor for various publishers.
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Author:Gunay-Erkol, Cimen; Bozkurt, Senem Timuroglu
Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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