INTERVIEW: Hale Yılmaz on social transformation in republican Turkey

INTERVIEW: Hale Yılmaz on social transformation in republican Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Hale Yılmaz on social transformation in republican Turkey

People’s Houses (Halkevleri) were opened in February 1932 to try to spread Kemalist reforms across the country.

The governments in Turkey have always seen engineering society as both their right and their duty. They also all share a belief that such state-directed transformation is within their ability.

Southern Illinois University associate professor of history Hale Yılmaz’s “Becoming Turkish: Nationalist Reforms and Cultural Negotiations in Early Republican Turkey, 1923-1945,” looks back almost 100 years to trace this process. While proponents and opponents of the Kemalist reforms both tend to see them in black and white terms, Yılmaz’s book paints a richer, more ambiguous picture. 

Yılmaz spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her book (reviewed in HDN here), which will be published in Turkish by Istanbul Bilgi University Press later this year, and what her research can tell us about Turkey today. 

Your book argues that the practical reality of the Kemalist reforms was actually a grey area between passive acceptance and active resistance. That goes against much of the early official history and also the opposition counter-history. Outline the argument you make and why you think it’s important.

There are two major arguments [in the field]: One is that there was general passive submission; the other is that there was violent rebellion, revolt and resistance, especially in the east. I was interested in what happened to the reforms after they were passed in Ankara. I was interested in the social life of the reforms beyond those moments of rebellion or resistance. I looked at the various everyday forms of acceptance, negotiation, and resistance. I also wanted to move from the center and the big cities to the provinces, to the Anatolian small towns and villages. How did ordinary people in their everyday lives experience this process of reform? 

Initially I wanted to do a micro history of the province of Trabzon, looking at this question from the context of one specific area. But over the course of the research the project transformed from focus on a particular province to a macro history that focused on a number of specific themes. I ended up focusing on the clothing reforms for men and women, the language and alphabet reforms, and the culture of national celebrations.

You spend a lot of time talking about the Hat Law of 1925. This was the famous law that introduced the use of Western-style hats instead of the fez and traditional religious headgear. Why was this an important law?

The Hat Law was about getting rid of the fez and other forms of headgear associated either with religion or the Ottoman period, or different ethnicities, different groups. The Hat Law was intended to be part of the Westernizing process: Turkish men should wear the same style of hats that European men wear. But it was also about getting rid of different styles of hats that symbolized different competing identities - Islamic identity or Kurdish ethic identity and so on. So it was intended to be both unifying and nationalizing, but also Westernizing.

In this period Turkish reformers were obsessed with appearances. In large part this was because they were worried about European perceptions of them as "Orientals" or backward." The reformers wanted to do things to show that they were not different from the Europeans. By getting rid of the fez they were trying to erase a sign of being oriental, Islamic or eastern.

It's also quite ironic because Kemalists saw the fez as a backward symbol of the old order. But in fact it was only introduced in the 19th century and at the time it was actually seen as a modern, Westernizing innovation against the traditional turban. 

The fez was introduced in the 1820s so it was relatively new. But by the late 1920s many people were defending the fez in the name of tradition and Islam. From the point of view of the reformers, they were trying to remove everything associated with the old era. One thing I emphasize in the book is that it really was not only about the fez. The reformers also wanted to get rid of different kinds of headgear, the fez was only one kind. The campaign was successful in a way, but that doesn't mean everyone immediately accepted it, and I do give examples of various forms of everyday resistance. For example, some elderly men secluded themselves in their homes and refused to go out because they didn't want to put on a hat.

One interesting result of the reform was that the new hat led to a new class distinction. There was the round European-style hat that was worn by more upper-middle class men, while peasants and workers and poor people tended to wear the simpler cap. So even though the reform was supposed to be unifying, it also led to at least two forms of headgear that revealed class distinctions.

You also talk about women's clothing and how a lot of the republican reforms built on trends that were already happening in the late Ottoman era.

In the case of women's clothing there was no law similar to the 1925 Hat Law, but that doesn't mean the state wasn't involved. Turkish historiography has often assumed that because there was no law the state basically left it to the forces of modernization and fashion. What I discovered in my research is that there was disagreement within the party when it came to women's clothing. This can be seen in party debates; some members really wanted to push for a radical reform law similar to the Hat Law, while others were more cautious. 

There was clearly a fear of reaction and the party didn't want to face more resistance due to such a proposed law. They were aware of the experience of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, where there were state-led efforts to forcibly change women's clothing, which led to a lot of violence against women especially in places like Uzbekistan. In Turkey the CHP government decided against passing a law and banning the peçe [face veil] and çarşaf [all-enveloping outer garment]. It delegated responsibility for reforming women's clothing to the local authorities - governors, district governors and the press. 

Two other things you explore are the language and script reforms and the celebration of new national holidays, often based on the War of Independence.

Turkish historians have not really looked at national holidays or celebrations closely, as they are usually not considered within this sphere of reforms. National holidays have been seen more in the sphere of culture and ethnography. But in my book I argue that the celebrations were very much part of this process of nation-making and modernization. In the 1920s and 30s we see the emergence of a number of new national days: Youth and Sports Day, National Sovereignty and Children's Day, and perhaps most important the Republic Day celebrating the proclamation of the republic.

All these holidays were associated with the new state, the accomplishments and ideals of the new regime. But they also often dealt with a real issue, a social problem. In the case of April 23, National Sovereignty and Children's Day, it celebrated national sovereignty but it also intended to draw attention to the problems of children's hunger and children' health. One thing to remember is that the 1920s and 30s were a period after an entire decade of war and destruction, so there were many social problems and some of the national holidays were connected to drawing attention to these issues. 

When the regime added new holidays obviously it terminated holidays that were closely associated with the Ottoman regime. But the new holidays, Children's Day for example, had origins in the Ottoman era and the time of the Young Turks. Like so many of the reforms they were not entirely new. Also the creation of new holidays didn't mean getting rid of religious holidays. Turkish citizens continued to celebrate the important Islamic festivals. Unlike the Soviet experience, in the Turkish case the creation of secular national holidays did not end the culture of religious celebrations.

We tend to imagine the reform process as a homogeneous phenomenon that was completely dominant everywhere in the country. But in fact there were severe limits to the state’s resources and reach. That’s a key reason why it could never really successfully transform all of society as it wished. 

If you take the language reform, with the alphabet change moving from the Arabic/Persian-based Ottoman script to a Latin-based new Turkish script in 1928, it was partly about people learning a new alphabet - people literate in Ottoman learning a new alphabet - but for the majority it actually meant moving from illiteracy to literacy: It was the first time they had learned to read and write. There was a major campaign after 1928 to teach the new letters and also to expand literacy throughout the country. 

But the resources of the state were very uneven. So even with the "Millet Mektepleri" [National Schools] set up to teach literacy to citizens, they were not evenly distributed. The same was true for the school system for young people; it was generally in the cities and in the western parts of the country that resources were more available. As you went east and southeast they were less so. A related issue is that in some regions state officials had less access to local communities, especially when they didn't speak the local language, or when local society was tribal and state officials had very little presence or effect. 

On the question of the language change, generally there was a positive attitude toward literacy and reading, which were seen as requirements of being modern. That helped people accept the new letters. But much depended on whether the person was already literate. It was also a different experience for young and elderly people. For those who were literate in Ottoman, some learned the new alphabet and some didn't. So in 1928 some literate people essentially lost their functional literacy; others learned the new alphabet but continued to use the old letters. It's interesting to see how they often made a distinction between the public and private spheres. In private they wrote in Ottoman but in public they used the new letters.

You say in the book that there was less resistance to the language reforms than other reforms, partly because illiteracy was so widespread before - not enough people knew the old Ottoman script to resist the new script being imposed. The other crucial point is that the new script simplified the language, which made it easier for people to learn.

That was definitely true. It was one of the main arguments that the reformers made: The new alphabet was simpler, easier to learn and easier to read and write. It was also more efficient for publishing. But at the same time there was also a cultural and ideological aspect too. The reformers really wanted to leave behind things closely associated with the Ottoman era and bring the nation closer to Europe and the West. In that sense, adopting a Latin-based alphabet made sense. 

The generations who were literate in Ottoman before 1928 maintained their habits. It's hard to change established habits; just to give one example, the great 20th century poet Orhan Veli Kanık was still writing in the Ottoman script in the 1940s. Some of these poems were recently published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları; he was writing poetry in Ottoman because it was most natural for him. We also see this with other writers, politicians and historians. The late Ottoman historian Halil İnalcık acknowledged that he sometimes still wrote in the Ottoman script in the 1990s. 

Your book raises the question of social engineering, and the use of the state to try to transform society. This belief in social engineering is a persistent theme throughout modern Turkish history up to today, shared by all ideologies. Could you comment on this persistent theme throughout Turkish history?

This of course is not something unique to Turkey. In the 20th century many modernizing states tried to use the power of the state to transform their societies. Again the Soviet Union is a great case of this. In Turkey too, the state has tried to use the means available - the legal system, the education system, the media - to change society's culture. In the Turkish case there has been disagreement over what Turkish identity should be and what the direction of the country should be. Those in power and those who want to be in power want to use the means available to the state to transform society in the way they imagine.
Currently it is very much contested. I'd say as a historian that it is too early to say what will come out of the present process. Clearly as we approach the centennial of the Turkish Republic there are divisions in society and disagreements over what Turkish identity and the republic are about. All change takes time, even in the case of France and the French Revolution it took a very long time for French society, especially French peasants, to really accept the republic. Some would argue it was not even until after the First World War that French peasants finally came to terms with the republic. So perhaps in the Turkish case it's still too early to say what will come out of it.

* Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via TwitteriTunesStitcherPodbeanAcast, or Facebook.