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Musical Minarets: The Women of Istanbul

How is Turkey’s legacy of women’s rights reflected in songs from the time of the country’s founding?

August 16, 2003

How is Turkey's legacy of women's rights reflected in songs from the time of the country's founding?

The First World War (1914-1918) proved to be the final blow to the tottering Ottoman Empire. As the empire’s nearly 600-year reign collapsed, victorious powers such as France and Great Britain stood poised to slice up its political carcass and divide it among themselves.

Enter Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A successful general during World War I, Ataturk seized the opportunity presented by post-war chaos and forged a new nation — Turkey.

To do so, Ataturk waged war skillfully against outside invaders and internal opposition. By 1922, Sultan Mehmed VI — the last of the Ottoman emperors — fled from Istanbul and Ataturk took power.

The new Republic of Turkey was born in October of 1923. As opposed to its predecessor, Ataturk’s republic was a secular government that aspired to democracy.

Banished from the scene were the religious institutions that held power in the Ottoman Empire — most notably the Caliphate, which had been passed down from the prophet Mohamed and had been administered by the Ottomans since the 16th century.

Ataturk’s gaze was fixed to the West — especially toward Europe. He made sweeping changes to political institutions — and even the language of Turkey — that mirrored Western European institutions and customs. (Arabic script was replaced by a new alphabet in Latin script.) Among these reforms was a profound change to the status of women.

The abject legal and social position of women in the Ottoman Empire was altered by new laws. Less than a decade after the republic’s founding, women were elected to Parliament. The new strides toward equality were revolutionary — and they had a profound effect on Turkey’s arts and culture.

As Harold G. Hagopian observes in his superb liner notes to the collection Women of Istanbul: “In the [Turkish] music world, women became ever more visible, especially in the cabaret-style nightclubs and music halls that proliferated in Istanbul between the 1920s and 1940s.” These women and their music form the dynamic core of Women in Istanbul — a collection of rare songs recorded by prominent Turkish women singers between 1928 and 1953.

At times, on the oldest recordings featured on Women in Istanbul, one can hear the crackling energy unleashed from old recordings. One can also hear the daring of these women singers in the dusty grooves. Hagopian writes that “… it was a daring proposition for a Turkish woman to appear onstage, and remained so through the 1930s. Many who did appear were considered brazen women, or simply prostitutes.”

Such reactions demonstrate that Ataturk’s reforms in women’s rights took some time to bear fruit. Yet Women of Istanbul is not only a useful tool to track the progress of women in Ataturk’s Turkey, but larger demographic shifts as well. Many of the songs on Women in Istanbul also provide evidence of an equally seismic demographic shift — from the countryside to the city.

Songs such as Safiye Ayla’s “Oglanin davari” (which describes the day of a shepherd boy) and Faide Yildiz’s “Konyalim” (a love song from the Anatolian town, Konya) signal the ways in which the songs of the rural heartland of Turkey traveled with the population to the new republic’s larger towns. Such songs were known as “turku” — and they served as the basis for modern Turkish folk music.

The songs on Women in Istanbul range in style from the “turku” folk that came to the cabarets of Istanbul from the countryside to sophisticated songs that mimic the tango’s blend of formality and intimacy. Yet one characteristic that unites almost all of the tunes is their theme.

The songs on Women of Istanbul are often tales of hopeless yet undying love — or abject subjugation to the beloved. Even more surprising, many of the songs — though sung by women — are written from the male point of view.

Kucuk Nezihe Hanim’s song “Nafile Gulme” is an excellent example of the former genre. “I am your slave,” Hanim sings. “Kill me. Set me on fire.” Another singer of the period, known simply as “Fahriye,” strikes a similar pose on her song, “Gorunce o dilberi”: “My foolish heart was imprisoned in the strands of your hair.”

Another striking theme in the songs of Women of Istanbul is the cruel complexity and sad poetry of relationships. On “Sigaramin Dumani,” the noted Istanbul singer Muzeyyen Senar sings, “Smoke of my cigarette/ My beloved has no mercy.” Mahmur Handan Hamim’s lovely ballad, “Karsyakali,” is equally sophisticated: “You are sensuous and a bit extravagant/ How elegant and beautiful you are.”

The collision of religious tradition and new roles for women in Ataturk’s Turkey created numerous complexities and cruelties. The swelling of the city with new faces from the country also proved to be a marriage of sophistication and simplicity.

The songs of Women in Istanbul capture the complexities and simplicities of Ataturk’s radical experiment. It is a treasure for anyone who desires to explore how music mirrors politics and changing social roles.