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Feminism in Turkey begins in Ottoman period, says expert

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet | 4/9/2011 12:00:00 AM | Ali DAĞLAR

Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi (The Women's Artifacts Library,) a memory bank of women in Turkey, is 21 years old. Anthropologist and journalist-writer Nevval Sevindi is the new director of the library, located in the district of Balat, Istanbul. Sevindi, who has been working with the library for 20 years, published her 16th book, 'Love in Search of Its Spirit'. The book debut coincides with her assignment as the director of the library

The Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi (Women's Artifacts Library) is a memory bank of women in Turkey. Established with 100 books during former Istanbul Mayor Nurettin Sözen’s tenure, the Women's Artifacts Library and Information Center Foundation is 21 years old today. Located in Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood, it is the only library in the East on this particular subject, said its new director, anthropologist and journalist-writer Nevval Sevindi.

The Women's Artifacts Library and Information Center Foundation is an institution with a quite serious establishment in the U.K., France, German, Sweden and in the United States, according to Sevindi. The library was established in 1990 by five academics and political scientists: Şirin Tekeli, Aslı Davaz, Füsun Yaraş, Füsun Akatlı and Jale Baysal. “Unfortunately, Akatlı and Baysal passed away. I’ve been involved as a volunteer for 20 years,” she said.

If there are no documents, there is no history, argued Sevindi. “Works on women have not been taken seriously in the mistaken belief that men make the history and with the misperception that history is a narration of men’s war and pain. History was not evaluated in this angle before, and the history of women disappeared,” she explained.

The library has a mission to collect data on women’s works and artifacts, form a women’s history and shed a light on this part of history.

“If you cannot find documents on women, the War of Independence is perceived as a war in which only men fought against other men in the world. Women have always been in Turkey, not only since the War of Independence but also since time immemorial,” she said.

Judgments are regarded as information in Turkey, she claimed.

“Previously, when one talked about Ottoman women, the understanding was one of the four wives living with her chador behind window screens. We have started work on the subject by collecting rare and precious documents on women in the Ottoman period,” she said.

[HH] ‘Feminist’ used first by Ottoman women

The documents on women dating from the Ottoman times were translated and printed in the Latin alphabet, she said.

For the first time, academic studies on women have been brought to light, she said, and these have provided valuable information: “The word ‘feminist’ is used by the Ottoman women for the first time. They used the word in women’s newspapers and magazines and called themselves ‘feminist.’ For instance, the publishers, editors and layout designers of these magazines were women. They made very important studies on gender equality in education. Plenty of women’s newspapers and magazines were published during the Ottoman period. Founder and leader of the first women party in the world was Nezihe Muhiddin, an Ottoman woman.”

The library has currently 13,000 books and 1 million archive documents.

“We have archives on women, like the first female lawyer of the Republic Süreyya Ağaoğlu. We have archives on many ‘firsts’ of the Republic; some are even ‘firsts’ in the world, because the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, pointed to women and said, ‘I established the Republic with them.’ He brought women into education and politics. The socialization of women was achieved through the Republic. As we tell about the ‘firsts,’ people get excited and say, ‘It means we had everything; we were not those idiots.’ The only thing keeps us from learning is an [inferiority] complex.”

The library lacks enough space to keep all those documents. It urgently needs a fire system and a compact shelves system.

“We have plenty of materials but no room to display them. Both have serious costs. We are asking for help and looking for sponsors,” she said. They have asked the municipality to grant them the building next door and also convert it into a women’s artifact museum.

[HH] Links of Republic history

The library initiated a project called “Istanbul Woman, Woman Istanbul,” as part of European Culture Capital 2010 Istanbul activities. “Istanbul is a feminine city. It is decorated with fountains, mosques, woods and public fountains built for women Ottoman sultans. That’s why everyone has an eye on the city.”

[HH] We erase terms against women

An effort that preoccupies the officials of the library is whether expressions used against women will be replaced by something else. “We erase and replace them with different words. This is a very critical work and done in science, literature and religion. I worked on the anthropology part of this project. For instance, you might either say ‘healer’ women or ‘enchanter;… We managed to collect the glossary into a book. Our sponsor was Finland.”

Another important project is the printing of eight women’s newspapers and magazines in the Turkish alphabet. “This work on the occasion of our 20th anniversary is a big mine of information,” claimed Sevindi.

The library, which has 28 board members, mostly academics, holds biennial general body meetings. The foundation is inspected regularly. “We don’t have groups or lists because our business totally depends on voluntary work. No budget, no fight. You pay out of pocket and have sponsors. There is no power struggle. We are working rather for the leadership of information.”

Sevindi complained about a lack of interest.

“No one has visited us from the Fatih Municipality or the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, from the government or any other political parties, except former Mayor of Istanbul Ali Müfit Gürtuna. What is saddening is that our library has a great deal of prestige abroad. We have international students for masters’ degree or for training. However, our own people are unfamiliar with their history. We usually have foreign sponsors.”

Sevindi, who said she is a true feminist in favor of claiming and protection women’s rights, has published 16 books. The first one was on love, “Deadly Effects of Love.” Her last one is called “Love in Search of its Spirit: A Guide to Stormy Affairs,” which dwells on relationships between men and women which she described as problematic.

“In this book, I convey public messages via individual stories. People have problems but no place to resort for solution. They don’t know what to do and things get worse as mistakes are made. Love will seek its spirit because if you don’t have a spirit your body is simply a corpse. If you don’t have an identity, the feeling is not love. Otherwise, this become only a search for sexual partnership as it’s pumped in the West.”

Sevindi is critical of men who cite marriage as one of their biggest fears. “They don’t want to take responsibility. It is strange to single out a thousands-of-years-old institution just because it ‘doesn’t fit human’s life.’ I gave clues to people of where should they start. There are things that do not stop the storm but help you to be aware of it. I included examples from daily life in order to make it simpler to understand. A girl does not fall in love with the belly or bald head of a man 45 years older than her; she falls for his money.”

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