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A Book Review

Sengul Hablemitoglu and Necip Hablemitoglu, Sefika Gaspirali ve Rusya'da Türk Kadin Hareketi (1893-1920) [Sefika Gaspirali and the Turkic Women's (Rights) Movement]. Ankara: Ajans-Turk Matbaacilik Sanayii, 1998. xv + 672 pp., illus.

"Women's Rights" is one of the most sensitive and important socio-political issues of our times. As we approach a new millennium, women all over the world are still fighting for equality and equal rights. It will not be wrong to state that among the world's women, the Muslim women are the least understood and known, partially due to the negative publicity they receive in the western press. It is important to note that there is also a positive side of Muslim women the western public rarely reads about, if at all. That is the courageous, highly spirited and talented side of the Muslim women who have been fighting for their rights as long as their western counterparts, if not longer. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of research and publication on Muslim women not only in the western world, but in the Muslim world as well. Thanks to Drs. Sengul and Necip Hablemitoglu's recent publication, Sefika Gaspirali and the Turkic Women's (Rights) Movement in Russia, we get to know this little known side of Turkic-Muslim women.

The Hablemitoglus introduce us to a courageous and talented Crimean Tatar lady, Sefika Gaspirali, the daughter of Ismail Gaspirali. The authors provide excellent documents and photographs of women and men who have played an important role in launching the Turkic-Muslim women's movement during the most critical period in the history of Russian Muslims. Sefika Gaspirali and the Turkic Women's (Rights) Movement in Russia is six hundred and seventy two pages long, written in Turkish, and contains sixty one pages (pp.402-463) of interesting photographs as well as eighty five pages (pp.465-650) of fascinating documents.

The new book by the Hablemitoglus contains the following chapters:


  • Chapter One: Sefika Gaspirali's Life, Family, and her Socio-Cultural Environment
  • Chapter Two: The Evolution of Turkish Women's (Rights) Movement in Russia - Its Birth and Progress
  • Chapter Three: The 1917 Revolution (in Russia) and the Active Period in Women's Movement
  • Chapter Four: Sefika Gaspirali and Women's (Rights) Movement in the Crimea
  • Chapter Five: Sefika Gaspirali and the Bloodiest Occupational Period in the Crimea (1918-1919)
  • Chapter Six: Azerbaijan (1919-1921) - The First Stop after Escaping Death
  • Chapter Seven: Turkey (1921-1975) - The Last Stop of the Journey of Thousand Deaths

The following are just a few examples of interesting facts one will find in this well researched and documented book:

The beginning date of the Turkic-Muslim women's movement in Russia (April 10, 1893) is quite interesting. Ismail Bey Gaspirali who had gained a great deal of experience in dealing with the Russian authorities in getting permission to publish his famous newspaper,Tercuman, is credited with launching this movement. In order to tame the suspicion of the Tsarist government, he had to disguise the meeting of the Turkic Muslim intellectuals and their wives as the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Tercuman in Bahçesaray, Crimea, on April 10, 1893. He even invited representatives of government to join the celebration just to divert the attention of the Tsarist authorities away from the real purpose of this historic event. During the celebrations Ismail Bey Gaspirali found a way to inform his Turkic Muslim guests about the importance of women's rights in reforming the entire Muslim population of Russia. Zuhre Hanim Gaspirali, Ismail Bey's wife, was able to do the same for the wives of her husband's guests.

Sefika Gaspirali's life as the daughter of Ismail Gaspirali, the most famous Crimean Tatar intellectual who single handedly launched the most daring reform movement of Russian Muslims, was quite colorful. She was part of the historic Turkic-Muslim reform movement and had the opportunity to become one of the leaders of this movement. How did she utilize this opportunity is well documented and described by Drs. Sengul and Necip Hablemitoglu. Sefika Hanim's childhood spent in an interesting intellectual environment, basically in the printing house of Tercuman with her famous father, and her description of this highly interesting period of intellectual history of Crimean Tatars and Russian Muslims make this book a fascinating reading. How did she get involve in becoming the editor of the first Turkic-Muslim women's journal in Russia, Alem-i Nisvan (Women's World)? How did she become the head of the first Darulmuallimat (Girls Teachers School) in Akmescit? Reading about her political activities as a woman delegate to the historic Crimean Tatar Kurultay (Parliament) during a critical period of Crimean Tatar history, described by Sefika Hanim herself, adds more value to this book.

The Turkic-Muslim women in Russia had to fight "tooth for tooth" to gain recognition. An attempt by a group of women activists to participate and present a proposal on women's rights during the Kurultay held in Baku on April 15-20, 1917, was out right rejected, and these women were thrown out (p. 151). The Congresses held in Tashkent (April 17-23, 1917), in Orenburg (April, 1917), and in Dagistan (May 5, 1917), did not even have women's rights on their agenda. However, the first all Turkic-Muslim women congress held in Kazan between April 24-27, 1917, decided on important issues which continue to be issues of importance today, such as equality between men and women within family; women's right to divorce; and alimony to be paid by men for his children who are taken care by the women, until the child reaches puberty, etc.

All the political activities by Turkic-Muslim women to gain equal rights have been well documented in Sefika Gaspirali and the Turkic Women's (Rights) Movement in Russia.

The authors provide us with valuable and interesting information. For example, the date to end the publication of Tercuman was decided by Tercuman's staff after a joint meeting of Sefika Gaspirali and her brothers, journalists Aziz Nuri, Osman Akcokrakli, Mithat Refat, Ismail Leman, Hasan Sabri Ayvaz, Ibrahim Fehmi, and Veli and Omer Ibrahim. The date selected was 23 February, 1918, the date of Numan Celebicihan's brutal murder. "We decided to die on our own rather than to be murdered; therefore, we closed the Tercuman (on Celebicihan's date of murder.)" (p.265)

Sefika Hanim's brother, Cevdet Mansur Gaspirali, had kept three different diaries between 1922-1925, describing the difficulties and hardship the Gaspiralis faced when they arrived in Turkiye. It is an example how the new emigrants, regardless of their status, suffered when they first arrived in Turkiye and also their yearning for Crimea. It contains valuable information on the status of 20th-century Crimean Tatar emigrants who were better off than most ordinary Crimean Tatar emigrants. The new book by the Hablemitoglus is a valuable source for those interested in 20th Century Crimean Tatar emigrations. There is a great deal of other information on Crimean Tatar and Turkic-Muslim women activists available for the first time.

Dr. Sengul Hablemitoglu, in her final words, (Sonsoz) provides these conclusions (a brief summary):


  • Turkish Women's Rights Movement in Russia (TWRMR) has risen from the ashes of a culturally backward, male dominated, and conservative society. Ironically, this movement was "killed", by supposedly progressive Soviet Government.
  • TWRMR, in its struggle for equality, stayed away from the anti-man, anti-family and pro-sexual freedom radical feminist approaches.
  • TWRMR began after Ismail Gaspirali's success in educating the girls, and it developed further as this educational success spread throughout Russia and reached a much higher level.
  • TWRMR recognized the importance of political power sharing which they realized was possible only by participating in the election process locally as well as nationally.
  • TWRMR recognized also the importance of public relations and the utilization of the available mass media and used them well.
  • There was a great solidarity among women delegates throughout their early struggle who displayed strong determination as well as courage.
  • The women's organizations in their historic fight for equality ignored not only the "left-right" political rift, but also went beyond the ethnic boundaries. Being a Crimean Tatar, Kazan Tatar, Azeri, Kirgiz or Kazak did not matter; they were able to work together well.
  • The Turkish women in modern Turkiye gained some of their socio-political rights between 1926-1934, long before many women in the western world. In Turkiye, these rights were gained not by an organized women's movement, but through the initiative and will of its leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whereas in Russia the Turkish women gained their rights in 1917, after a long and hard fought struggle.
There is one interesting issue that caught my attention. I had trepidation in bringing this controversial issue up, but my conscience leaves me no choice. It is the opposition to usage of the word Tatar as the national identity which according to the authors, is strongly opposed by Ismail Bey Gaspirali. The authors strongly emphasize Ismail Bey's opposition to the usage of Tatar as a national identity by using his letters on this subject from Tercuman (pp. 127-129). This is all well until you read on and find that the word Tatar was widely used throughout the book, in all forms of documents, poems and declarations of appeal written by women's rights advocates, etc. It creates some inconsistency that readers might get confused about. Let me give you some examples:

Sefika Gaspirali's official Kurultay document (Sehadetname) uses the word Kirim Tatari (Crimean Tatar.): ...Sefika Hanim Gasprinskaya Efendinin Gozleve Uyezdinden saylanmis Kirim Tatar Meclisi Mebusani azasi oldugu isbu sehadetname ile tasdik edilir. (This document proves that Sefika Hanim Gasprinskaya is a member of Crimean Tatar Parliament elected from Gozleve District.) (p. 267)

The Turkic-Muslim Women's organization in its first political appeal to the public uses the word Tatar clearly: Tatar Kadinlari! and Kirim Tatari denildigi gibi bunun icine biz kadinlar da dahil oluyoruz. (The term Crimean Tatar includes us women as well.) (p. 241)

Mehmet Niyazi, in his poem praising the opening of the first Girls Teachers School writes:


Bu mekteptir, ogretecek bizge ilmi edebi,
Tatarlikni koterecek Ismail Bey Mektebi!

It is this school that will teach us the rules of knowledge,
It is the Ismail Bey School that will elevate our Tatarness. (p. 254)

Also, Hamdi Giraybay, one of the most popular Crimean Tatar poets, praises the first graduates of the Darulmuallimat (Girls Teachers School) in his poem titled Darulmuallimatni Bitirgen Kizlarimizga (Our girls who Graduated from the Darulmuallimat):

...Iste bugun garip curtnun bir gulu siz actiniz;
Solgan Tatar dunyasina kop umitler sactiniz!

Today, you blossomed as roses in this poor homeland;
You spread great hope throughout this pale Tatar world. (p. 255)

Using the word Tatar as a national identity should not and does not mean denial of one's Turkic roots; therefore it should not be an issue that one should dwell on.

One last minor problem that caught my attention as well is the color of the Crimean Tatar flag on the beautifully done cover of this book. It should be Gok mavi (light sky blue), unless it is meant to represent the women's movement.

Overall, the new book by Drs.Sengul and Necip Hablemitoglu, Sefika Gaspirali and the Turkic Women's (Rights) Movement in Russia is a fascinating book which deserves to be in every bookstore in Turkiye and other Turkic countries. It should be widely distributed throughout the Turkic countries. It should also be translated into English and other major languages and be made available to readers worldwide to increase the awareness of the world public of the Turkic- Muslim women and their struggle for equal rights.

Mubeyyin Batu Altan
April 1999


Sefika Gaspirali ve Rusya'da Türk Kadin Hareketi (1893-1920) (Ankara, 1998) by Sengul Hablemitoglu and Necip Hablemitoglu may be ordered directly from SOTA, a research center in Haarlem, the Netherlands:

ICC, P.O.Box 15078, Washington, DC 20003