Sukufe Nihal, a Modern Woman of Early Republican Period: A Turkish Book about an Early Feminist Author by Hulya Argunsah.
Argunsah, Hulya (2002). Bir Cumhuriyet Kadini Sukufe Nihal, Ankam: AkCag, 382 pp. ISBN 975-338-438-6
This review aims to inform an international reader particularly those dealing with Modern Turkish literature and the social history of the last decade of Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republican period about a recent publication which is expected to bring new knowledge to the study of the history of a woman's intellectualism and early feminist actions in Turkey. A review on this book has already been published by Assist.Prof.Dr. Ali Yildiz (2003, Kadin/Woman 2000, 4 (2): 153-155), who mainly discusses the concept of 'woman literature' in Turkey, this review is aiming to bring this book into the knowledge of a wider circle from a different perspective, particularly to emphasise the part of Sukufe Nihal about the early feminist movement in Turkey.
The book titled Bir Cumhuriyet Kadini Sukufe Nihal (Sukufe Nihal, a Republican Woman) by Hulya Argunsah is a well researched biography of Sukufe Nihal's as well as critical analysis of her literary works. Sukufe Nihal was one of the well-known Turkish women, as an author and a modern intellectual protagonist in the society during the early years of the Republic period who was wiped away from the memories after 1950s. Argunsah's main aim in writing this book is to recall the forgotten image and works of Nihal from its lonely dark corner so as to shed more light for the social history as well as the feminism movement during the early Republic era.
As Argunsah verified, Sukufe Nihal was born in 1896 and died in 1973. She had a long productive life with several books published during her life time. She was one of the exceptional women with an intellectual capacity to experience the social reforms in the path of European culture, the War of Independence and the rise of a new regime after the abolition of the Sultanate. Besides her literary works, also her personal life was the object of a careful analysis as one of the women who started the struggle for independence of Turkish nation alongside the well-known women particularly Halide Edib, and feminist movement in Turkey by provoking the social reforms. As Argunsah suggested, Nihal's poetry and novels, along with her life story, is a reflection of the social realism which was beneath the shadow of her female sensitivity that finally led her into a loneliness and seclusion from her middle age until the end of her life as a result of partial failure of the reform movements to raise the status of women in the society as well as the disappointments she had experienced in her personal life.
The research presented in this book is comprised of the findings about the life-story and the biographical material of published or unpublished nature transmitted by her close circle of friends collected from different sources as well as a careful analysis of Nihal's literary works traced by the author. Hulya Argunsah is a professor of Turkish modern literature whose early studies were mainly on the male authors like Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu and Omer Seyfettin while her recent studies are largely on women authors like Sevinc Cokum (2000, Kadin/Woman 2000, 1(1), pp. 117-136) otherwise Ozden Selenge (2001, Kadin/Woman 2000, 2 (1): 43-65). The bibliography of the book proves her successful efforts to discover several sources in the course of research to perform this study as well as her patience to keep all material concerning Nihal's life as a fresh source for this book as there is no other reference to any previous study concerning this topic in her long reference list.
Argunsah expressed her personal feelings for her research as she had much worries about approaching the topic with a sensitive and romantic attitude. But in fact although she did not treat the subject in a romantic mood, she has written her research with a woman's sensitivity which is akin to the style of Nihal's literary works. This is very clear as she insisted on discovering a diary written by Nihal in order to bring much more rational explanations to her literary works.
In fact, Argunsah's analysis of Nihal's literary works reflected the source of inspiration to belong to the life experience of the author herself rather than deriving from a rich fictional world. Therefore, it could be said that these works are almost important sociological reflections of its time from the spectacles of a woman author in the time of the reforms and the endeavour of a woman to take part in intellectual society. Nihal is one of those rare women of her contemporary times who dared to get a divorce two years after the birth of her son in order to gain acceptance to the university education. She had her second marriage with Ahmed Hamdi Basar, a leading politician since the days of the Turkish war for Independence. Nihal's life as a marginal woman with her intellectual personality, wealth and beauty made her an attractive figure during her young age among the well-known contemporary authors, artists and politicians. Her economic position enabled her to host literary gatherings, which were frequented mainly by many well-known authors and artists. These gatherings inevitably created many rumours about her personal life which is still one of the threats for intellectual Turkish women. However, leaving aside the rumours, it is seen that her friendship and appreciation of Faruk Nafiz and his poetical ability, and the poetical letters sent to her by Nazim Hikmet, who politely rejected to attend to her parties as he did not find response to his temptations, and her long enduring love for Osman Fahri, a close friend of her first husband, all shaped her literary works as well as her personal life. Perhaps Argunsah's efforts to discover her diary would result with disappointment as Nihal preferred to knit all these self experiences into a fictional work rather than keeping personal notes. Therefore presumably she preferred her memory as a personal note book and coded her sorrow and happiness in her literary works which she shared with her readers like an artist who transfer self-experiences and memoirs through lines and colour. This fact is very clear in her novels which reflect the same type of lives and stories drawn for her heroes and heroines. Thus, we could say that the literary works of Sukufe Nihal as well as her biography perfectly tailored by Argunsah are having more significance in reflecting her life experiences hidden in the descriptions of her novels characters in the first half of the 20th century rather than showing high literary skills and fictional fantasies. Therefore all social realities, reforms, idealism, intellectual life style as well as love affairs of the fictions are in fact her personal observations and life experiences from her self or close relatives and friends. This trend in literature almost runs in parallel to the art creations of plastic artists of in the firs half of the 20th century. Artists of the time painted in post impressionist style and mainly depicting images of Anatolian people, patriotic scenes recalling the war of independence, countryside scenes or modern urban images without any abstraction while in the Western countries, abstraction in art and literature reached to its zenith.
Albeit a review should not be the summary of a book, for the benefit of non-Turkish reading researchers, a summary of Sukufe Nihal's life story narrated by Argunsah is given briefly in this review. Nihal was given a special education as a daughter of a rich, intellectual father of high official rank. However, she was forced into an early marriage during her early teenage years as her father was to leave Istanbul to take office in another province. Sukufe Nihal was one of the first students and graduates of Istanbul Inas Darulfunun (Istanbul Women's University) and the first woman graduate of the Geography Department to start her professional life as a geography teacher. In fact there is no hint to explain the reason for her choice to study geography rather than literature. Her life story is reflects the first feminist attitudes as she dared to get a divorce from her early marriage and managed to study geography at the university to become a teacher. However, she could not keep her interest in teaching as a geography teacher for a long time partly due to disappointment in her profession which prevented her literary creativity. Without any economic worries she did not hesitate to get an early retirement. There is no hint to explain the reason for her choice to study geography rather than literature. Her unexpected decisions, to get an early resignation from her teaching career and termination of her second marriage that lasted for 34 years, were the signs of an idealist personality and self-respect dedicating her life to literary writing with which she nourished her soul to relieve her loneliness. But her new lifestyle on the contrary to her expectations did not increase her creative manner as she could not keep up with the new literary trends and soon after she was almost forgotten, which affected her literary works. Her life ended tragically in the Bakirkoy Rehabilitation Centre for Old People at 77 years old. Even her grave with a broken stone bearing no inscription to identify her, had the same dramatic end.
She made a reputation in literature alongside the well-known contemporary authors like Fatma Aliye, Sair Nigar (Poet Nigar) and Halide Edip Adivar. As she was also one of the orators in the assembly of Sultanahmet Square, also she could be considered as one of the first women involved in politics. Her patriotic feelings and political actions besides the feminist ideas are well narrated in her novel Yalniz Donuyorum (I am coming back alone) in the personality and experiences of her heroine, Yildiz, which is described as a woman leaving the indoor space for the exterior space by Argunsah. Although Argunsah considers the thoughts of Yildiz, the heroin in Yalniz Donuyorum mainly the reflection of patriotic love, there is also a secret message of Marxist ideas revealed through Nihal's novels. Although it has been repeatedly emphasised on the disappointments of Nihal by Argunsah, there is not much explanations about the real causes for the feelings of seclusion. In fact, this are not many concerning the case of Nihal, but also other women who were the protagonist to encourage the war of independence or women movements that could not acquire important positions in later times in the newly established regime.
Argunsah explained her aim to conduct the study in the preface of the book and she organised her research in five long chapters. The first part of the book is reserved to a detailed biography of the author which is described to have been the product of a much more difficult research than compiling the bibliography of Nihal's works since there were no written diaries or documents of her life story. Nihal was the fifth woman to give a speech in Sultanahmet Square assembly which was in fact initiated by another woman author, Halide Edib Adivar. Nihal was also involved in women's movements by joining the first feminist association called Mudafaa-i Hukuk-i Nisvan (Association for Defence of the Woman's Legal Rights), established in 1913. She took part in the executive committee of the association under the leadership of Ulviye Mevlan, the first feminist woman in Turkey, in the second annual meeting of the association. Nihal also took part in the women's Public Association, established in 1923 under the leadership of Nezihe Muhittin, another contemporary feminist woman. Argunsah managed to add such information to enable the reader to understand her method for the analysis of her works. Furthermore, this part contains valuable information which almost summarised the stages of feminist actions in Turkey during the early years of the Republic. Although her private life is given, details about her relations either with her first husband or her two children are lacking in the research.
According to the research of Argunsah, Nihal started her writing venture nearly when she was 8-9 years old. Argunsah's research proved Nihal's earliest published work dated back to 1325 (1909) which was an essay explaining her views about the girls' schools and education. This is known through a letter published by Hamdullah Suphi, although she could not trace out this publication. Thus difficulties were encountered by Argunsah in her efforts to trace the original works of the author which manifested into a serious problem due to the lack of systematic archiving of the documents or literary works during the early years even in Istanbul.
The other three parts of the book are reserved to the analysis of Nihal's literary works. The first of these is her poetry writings which for her divided into three chronological phases. Each part deals with subheadings according to subjects either psychologically or thematically. Although in her early poetry, she expressed her romantic ideas either based on her personal feelings on love or patriotism, the poetry of the last phase usually reflected her solitude, retreat to her memories or to the nature in the countryside. According to Argunsah, Nihal's poetry is connected with her personal experiences and they reflect her life stages. Her early works usually are about self experience and romanticism based on the geography of Anatolia. Patriotic romanticism is a rather dominant element in her metaphors and settings; also, through her own personal feelings there is a tendency towards social realism. Argunsah considered Nihal as a successful poet rather than a novelist in view of the analysis of her literary works. Even though, as explained by Argunsah, in her long poetry Mermer Kapi (Marble Gate), Nihal neglected artistic paetical techniques for the sake of her discourse for personal feelings when she described eternal love, death, seclusion and nostalgia in deep intimacy. The technical character of Nihal's poetry is discussed in the last subheading of this part.
Her novels and stories are discussed in the third part of the book. Argunsah's research revealed six published novel by Nihal. Her feminist approach is discussed in her novel Yalniz Donuyorum (I am Coming Back Alone). Here the concept of a la franc, the French words adopted in Turkish for the 'European lifestyle', is criticised in a novel that has a topic concerning a female heroine who experienced a well balanced behaviour in the society after adopting the western lifestyle through gaining a good education while the male hero on the contrary misunderstood the western manners as merely entertainment life and freedom for love and sex. All examples given by Argunsah through examples from Nihal's novels revealed that almost all heroines are intellectual women who owe their intellectual personality to their fathers or male relatives whereas almost nothing is mentioned about the roles of their mothers, as it was akin to Nihal's own life. One important missing part in the research is the lack of enough reference to the son and daughter of Sukufe Nihal as well as the part of the children in the family life in all literary works analysed in Argunsah's book. Nihal discussed her ideas about marriage in her novel Yakut Kayalar (Ruby Rocks) where through several female heroines, different views about expectations from marriage life were expressed and marriage types are discussed. However, as Argunsah suggested, Nihal's female heroines always lacked enough communication with other people like her. Her male hero never noticed the agony and grief of the female heroin as it was almost the same in her own marriage. This theme is very strongly felt in her novel entitled Renksiz Aci (Colourless Agony). All these novels or stories once popular by her contemporaries besides her own personality were all disregarded by the publishers or readers in later years as she could not introduce any new concepts or techniques to her novels to keep up with the new trends. Perhaps her forgotten face while she preferred to live in retreat also cause to the neglect of her works.
The fourth part of Argunsah's book, was based on Nihal's travels, some of which were mainly published in periodicals. Her travel books, though only two, did in fact show her aim to serve Turkish society by presenting solutions to the social problems through her discourse based on her observations about the places she visited.
The last part of the book is the concluding remarks and a long bibliography of her works as well as works used in the research. Argunsah published an album of the author which interestingly illustrates the images of the author and her family as well as her close friends mainly the early feminist women and other well-known figures of Turkish literature. It is regretful not to find an index at the end of the book, something still missing in many Turkish scholarly publications.
As Argunsah suggested, Nihal's novels were not successful in a technical point of view. This brings to mind a question of the reason to make such a study on an author whose works are not of high literary value. Nevertheless it could be understood that Argunsah's method of approach toward her novels and poetry, which were a result of her life experiences rather than a fictional or fantasy world, were analysed from sociological and psychological perspectives so as to illustrate the social history of intellectual women during the early feminist movement.
Studies on Turkish women who managed to achieve success in the past are increasing during the last two decades. Biographies besides critical studies on the literary works of some Turkish authors are important for understanding the development of the literature particularly in the case of gender studies since they also reflect the developments achieved in the social history of Turkey as well as the difficult stages passed through by Turkish woman living a modern life although still has to remain a step backward than her male counterpart.
There are very few studies published about women in the Ottoman period. However, recent studies are bringing to light works by women authors from the Ottoman Empire in particular those from the late period as well as the early Turkish Republic period. However, still detailed biographies or critical studies have not been written about most of these women authors. As an author starting her career during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire and one of the leading women of the early Republic period, contrary to her contemporary colleagues such as Halide Edib Adivar or Fatma Aliye, who are well remembered and researched from earlier times, Sukufe Nihal was almost forgotten during her recent years. As a careful researcher, Argunsah tried to find out the real stories about her life besides her published or unpublished works with an aim both to recreate the portrait of one of the revolutionary women who experienced an avant-garde lifestyle and created literary works based on patriotisms and feminism, a rather new concept in Turkey during the first half of the 20th century. It is regretful to point out here that although Hulya Argunsah's book is the only widely studied research about Sukufe Nihal published in 2002, it is omitted to be included in the selected references in a recent book by Nesrin Tagizade Karaca which contains a short biography of Sukufe Nihal (Edebiyatimizin Kadin Kalemleri, 2006: 299-300). This is a bit surprising since another short biography about Sevinc Cokum included in Tacizade Karaca (2006: 290-295) also ignored another article published by Argunsah, already cited above, which reflects a reality in research methods in Turkish academia that selectivity of information sources is either based on personal relations, or due to the lack of a well organised data base or indices for the academic publications in Turkey or even a neglect to access to international digital databases
Publications concerning Turkish women increased recently in the academic circle. Besides research on social problems dealing with gender studies, biographies of well-known authors, artists and politicians are increasing in number. The recent biographies on women are also usually the research of women academics, and nowadays there are discussions about the methodology of research to be applied and the steps to be taken for the study of a biography as well as the critical approach to the literary works of women authors. The researchers' approach to literary work is usually with a feminine gaze and a feminine sensitivity that mainly capture their attention in the literary works of women authors. Therefore the biographical studies of the authors are considered as an essential part for the analysis of the literary works. It is really interesting that most of the works written during the early years of the Republic period are the products of the life experiences of many authors rather than being fantastic stories.
Like the works of 19th century Western authors, artists or musicians, short stories, novels, poetry, painting or music composed by women are all structured on the theme of woman. They also reflect the women's feelings as well as the indifference of the male hero towards the women's misery. They still keep the social taboos in their works as they never attempt to express any erotic passion in their love themes, of the feelings which remained always suppressed even in their marital life. This reminds a certain fact that women authors are usually making up their stories from their own life stories or environment instead of designing a fiction world. Another interesting fact is the part of the researchers about women artists or authors who are also women academics. Perhaps it could also be said that the reviewers and most probably the audiences are also mainly women. However, two reviews published so far on this book are by male academics. One of these reviewers (Ayata, Yunus (2004). Bilig, 32) claims that, Argunsah managed to bring out this forgotten woman to the status of a successful author, which she really deserved, by clarifying her impudent image. In fact although Argunsah's effort to enlighten the reader on Nihal's literary skills is successful as also claimed by Ayata, there is no such description in Argunsah's work to refer Nihal as an impudent or impertinent woman. On the contrary she was rather careful to use the word 'rumours' while describing some phases about Nihal's life, which reflect a woman's sensitivity as well as a scholarly manner.
One of the discussions in Argunsah's book was regarding the question whether there is a specific field in Turkish literature which could be considered as 'women's literature' for which she concluded her option to make a classification of a literature type which reflects 'women's sensitivity'. This attitude in literature as well as academic studies could strengthen critical ideas at this point that in a new millennium, instead of a feminist approach, the researchers or readers of both sexes must study these types of past literature, which is reflecting the sociological history, with more objectivity disregarding any gender difference. It is hoped that these kind of studies might also attract some wider class of male readers so as they could learn the role of women in the evolution of a modern society while they also could find out reasons for the unhappiness of intellectual women in society.
Hulya Argunsah's search for the life story of Sukufe Nihal both to write a biography of a feminist figure as well as to analyse her literary works is important to bring to mind a woman who remained silent in her last years and was almost forgotten before her death. The early works of modern Turkish literature starting during the early days of the Republic era are rather important to understand not only the literary developments but also the past social history of those days, during which the main foundations of a modern society, human rights and gender studies were laid down in Turkey. I could say that although Prof. Argunsah complained in the preface for the difficulty to retrieve enough information concerning the life of Sukufe Nihal, this is due to her modest character as a successful academic researcher as the reader will be satisfied to see a rather rich information about this author.
It is hoped that Hulya Argunsah's detailed study about Sukufe Nihal will not remain as a source only read by women readers but by a wider circle dealing with Turkish Modern literature as well as by those dealing with gender studies in Turkey.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Netice Yildiz
Eastern Mediterranean University
Faculty of Architecture